The Face of Hunger

Critical Care

Districts work to solve childhood hunger

Del Stover

If you’re not convinced that hunger is a real problem for your students, visit a school cafeteria on the morning after a long weekend, suggests Lynn Harvey, president of the School Nutrition Association.

At schools serving high-poverty communities, in particular, “you will see the face of true hunger. Having gone all weekend with little food … the kids are cramming into the cafeteria for breakfast.”

That may sound like hyperbole. There are no wild mobs rushing to the food counter, and you won’t see the swollen bellies and skeletal frames of children starving to death.

But child hunger in America is real. More than half of all children educated in public schools live in poverty, and as many as 13 million households with children are “food insecure,” where food is limited or of dubious nutritional value.

Somewhere out there, a bag of potato chips or a bowl of cereal may be only meal of the day for a child. 

Understanding this stark reality is why so many school boards are taking deliberate steps to expand their school district’s role in meeting the nutritional needs of students. Many traditional school lunch programs, for example, have long since expanded to include breakfast, after-school snacks, and even dinner.

But school boards are doing so much more. Across the nation, they are partnering with local agencies, community groups, and food banks to bring meals to recreation centers, housing developments, YMCAs, and anywhere else children may be hungry after school, on weekends, or over the spring, summer, and winter breaks.

“Schools are becoming the nutrition hub of their communities,” says Harvey, who also serves as chief of school nutrition services for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. “This is especially true in high-poverty communities, which are reliant on schools … to ensure students have access to food.”

Leading the way

The Burlington School District in Vermont is at the forefront of this policy trend. In addition to offering a traditional breakfast and lunch program, the district began serving dinner about five years ago—usually offering these meals soon after the last school bell. 

Demand is high for this service, which serves between 850 to 1,000 meals daily across the 4,000-student school district.

“What surprised us is that the meals are not utilized solely by kids who are low income,” says Doug Davis, the district’s director of food services. “There are lots of kids who get to school early in the day, around 7:30, and because of extracurricular activities, they don’t get home until 6 or 7, as there’s so much going on—so many clubs, team sports, and such.”

Despite its popularity, the dinner program was launched to ensure that children from low-income households wouldn’t go hungry at the end of the day, Davis says. While it’s fine that affluent students benefit, they at least will return to homes each evening to a well-stocked kitchen. Some students may find nothing to eat at home—or only junk food.

The needs of low-income students also convinced the district to target the nutritional needs of children on days when school is not in session, he says. During the summer, for example, the district supports a lunch program for children at 25 sites across the city, including recreation centers, summer camps, libraries, school buildings, and even a local park. 

“The summer meals are free to all kids, without the need for applications, without the need for forms,” Davis says. “More kids benefit if you can drop the eligibility requirements, and that’s important because there are a lot of kids who need access to nutritious food throughout the summer.”

Children in Burlington are lucky. Nationwide, fewer than one in five school-aged children living in low-income homes participate in summer food programs, despite efforts to educate families that such programs exist—and that their children are eligible to participate.

Hidden hunger

Efforts to provide hungry students with a meal outside school hours—and when school isn’t even in session—is more than a simple act of charity. Although no one wants a child to go hungry, health and nutrition experts point out that the stakes are quite high: Malnutrition can lead to health problems that make it harder to successfully educate students.

Even obese children can be at risk. Although some students aren’t receiving enough food, others are victims of what’s called “hidden hunger,” in which they have plenty to eat, but it’s eat junk food or meals of dubious nutritional value. This poor diet can lead to a condition known as micronutrient deficiency, which means young bodies aren’t receiving essential vitamins and minerals.

It’s also a condition that means trouble for younger children. Numerous studies reveal that a poor diet can result in compromised immune systems, stunted physical growth, and impaired cognitive development. Afflicted students also are more likely to have poor attendance, more visits to the school nurse, inattentiveness in class, and behavioral problems.

Given this potential health risk to students—and the long-term impact on classroom learning—school boards have good reason to ask their superintendent to identify how many students are at risk, Harvey says. If one in four students were missing school or suffering health problems because of a virus outbreak, there would be public outrage—and the district would be responding aggressively.

“But when one in four children are at risk of food insecurity and, as a result, chronic hunger, we’re not as quick to take action. So school leaders must respond … must recognize that hunger is real in this country, and it’s in our backyards.”

Taking action is a smart investment for school boards, she adds.

“It’s a very small investment in terms of the outcomes you’ll see. Providing meals to students is an instructional intervention just like providing a highly qualified teacher or a textbook or a new technology. It’s a means of ensuring better outcomes for students.”

Ambitious response

As both the scope and the impact of child hunger becomes clearer, more school districts are making that investment. In New York City, the nation’s largest district, school leaders announced in September their latest project—a Free School Lunch for All program.

This no-cost lunch—often termed a “universal” lunch—is an attempt to break down some of the barriers that deter hungry students from visiting the school cafeteria, officials say. Although 780,000 students in New York City are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, officials say about one-third weren’t taking advantage of the lunch program.

Why? For one, some parents weren’t aware of the program or lacked the English language skills to fill out the necessary paperwork. For another, a sizable number of students were avoiding the cafeteria out of concern for the perceived social stigma of being identified as eligible for subsidized meals.

For New York City, which already was providing free breakfasts, switching to a universal lunch program—open to all and requiring no advance paperwork—puts all students on the same playing field.

“Free school lunch will not only ensure that every kid in New York City has the fuel they need to succeed but also further our goal of providing an excellent and equitable education for all students,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in announcing the initiative.

The announcement came as another major meal program in the city was wrapping up for the year. Aware that low-income students go hungry when schools close for the summer, the school district, partnering with other city agencies, operates a summer meals program at 1,100 sites across the city. 

It’s not just big-city districts that are embracing an aggressive response to the issue of child hunger. In Colorado, the 30,000-student Boulder Valley School District is offering free breakfasts and snacks to all students at its highest-need schools.

Only about 20 percent of the district’s enrollment are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, says Ann Cooper, the district’s director of food services, but their numbers are concentrated in a handful of schools that are eligible under federal rules for additional funding to provide free breakfasts. 

Making it work

Many of these programs would not exist without the assistance of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and other federal agencies, which first started subsidizing school meal programs in the 1940s. Today, the federal government provides $18 billion annually to support school food programs that provide more than 45 million meals on any given school day.

Federal funding has played a significant role in the efforts of Nebraska’s Westside Community Schools. In addition to subsidizing free and reduced-price meals for the 6,000-student school district, federal money has allowed school officials to provide meals to children during the summer at 17 sites—schools, community centers, and nonprofit youth programs—and provide meals that a local food bank distributes at 23 additional sites.

As is common around the nation, Westside requires no applications for families to complete in order for their children to receive a summer meal—USDA rules waive the need for such paperwork for this particular program, says Erin Vik, the district’s director of nutrition services. 

In turn, the district has been able to take some creative ways to distribute food, including “Cruisin’ Kitchen,” a food truck that delivers meals to, among other locations, a city park.

One secret to expanding its efforts to feed hungry children, Vik says, is to leverage resources in the community. City agencies often can supplement school funds or help provide off-campus sites where after-school and summer meals can be served.

In Boulder Valley, school officials are working with a community food bank and local YMCA to distribute bags of food to low-income families at select schools. A trip to the food bank can be challenging for working parents or those without transportation, Cooper says, so teachers send food home with children—or share the bags with parents who pick up their children at the end of the school day.

Right now, this program targets preschool students at four schools, as well as those in first and second grade at one elementary school. Cooper says. Food bags are offered to all students “so there’s no stigma.”

Anyone can do it

These local programs should make clear that school boards have a lot of opportunities to respond to the issue of child hunger. But nutrition experts say that even districts that have expanded their meal programs beyond breakfast and lunch should not assume their work is done.

It’s important to review its understanding of the issue—and re-examine whether the district has good data on the scope of the child hunger problem in its community. Does it really know how many children are living in food-insecure households? Does it know how many children go hungry over the weekend—or when schools are closed for spring, summer, and winter breaks?

Learn more about funding opportunities, Harvey says, and look for obstacles that prevent children from accessing available meal programs. “If a school bus is late, and students must go straight to the classroom or be tardy, that’s a situation where a child who is eligible for breakfast can go hungry.”

Based on his experience at Westside, Vik says, school leaders also shouldn’t be deterred by worries that expanding school meal opportunities will be more one financial, logistical, or operational burden.

His summer meal program receives federal funding, and compared to serving meals during the school year, “it’s just not the same level of production,” he says. “It doesn’t require the same staffing.”

Also, don’t underestimate what your food services staff can accomplish with the school board’s support, Vik adds.

“My previous background was in hotel management, and I’ve worked with caterers. But what really opened my eyes, and kind of blew my mind in some respects, was the amount of work that these school programs are doing with a minimal amount of resources. They’re very efficient.”



Del Stover ( is senior editor of American School Board Journal.


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