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Educators Point to Student Hunger as Grave Problem

New survey focuses on the need to feed children to stem classroom problems

By Cynthia McCabe

Tuesday, December 8, 2009 -- More than 60 percent of teachers say they reach into their own pockets to provide food for their students each month, according to a new survey underscoring the damage educators see hunger doing to their students. Whether they work in rural, urban, or suburban environments, hunger is manifesting itself in illness, discipline problems, and lack of focus and engagement.

Roughly the same number say – 62 percent -- they see students enter their classroom without having had enough to eat that morning, the Share Our Strength survey found. No wonder then that more than half believe an in-classroom breakfast program is essential in public schools.

“Teachers are out there reaching into their own purses and wallets every year for their students,” said Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association. Typically, teachers and education support professionals spend an average of $443 of their own money each year to purchase necessary goods for their students, according to NEA’s annual Status of the American Public School Teacher report. “But what we’re finding now is that they’re doing it for food for our kids,” said Pudlow.

Poor nutrition creates major learning challenges for many low-income students – in some cases, those challenges begin even before the students are born.

According to a report released this year by the Educational Testing Service, students between the ages of 4 and 17 who were born underweight were more likely to be enrolled in special classes, repeat a grade or struggle in school. That same report found that low-income students given a free breakfast at school gained three percentile points on standardized tests and had improved attendance.

Amy, a fourth grade teacher in Bronx, New York, describes a boy who arrives at her classroom at 7 a.m., hoping she can give him breakfast. Her students have lunch at 11:30 and then don’t eat the rest of the day, says Amy. “I don’t know how people expect them to be able to do their homework. As a teacher there’s so many things that you deal with in the day and having kids who are hungry is just one more thing that makes it so hard for them to learn.”


Share Our Strength survey on hunger in the classroom

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Two New York City teachers discuss hunger in their classrooms. Click to watch.