For Kids Who Rely On School Food, Vacations No "Break"


Hungry but well-behaved students (and staff) at Jefferson County's Hillview Elementary queue up for some sweet potatoes. Photo by Dan Carsen.

90.3 WBHM Birmingham-- Roughly 30 million students in the United States rely on federally subsidized school meals. Even so, more than half that number are in real danger of malnutrition. So many kids depending on school for food may seem troubling enough ... but what happens when school's closed? Our Southern Education Desk reporter Dan Carsen has more on that deceptively simple question as districts across our area prepare for the holidays:


Rachel Price works full-time at a daycare center in Birmingham. She's a single mother and makes minimum wage, so she has full-time worries about feeding her children and grandchildren. Ironically enough I caught up with her on her lunch break. As we stood between the squat brick building and a main thoroughfare, she confided, "It hurts as a mother, tryin' to tell your child they can't go into the kitchen and get something. It's definitely a struggle. I have a lot of sleepless nights. I cry a lot."

That's because of practical details many of us don't have to sweat. But for Price, the "little" things get big, quickly. Like at the supermarket, or on her kids' doctor visits:

"A lot of times you sit and you wonder, 'Am I going to have enough? Do I go with cheap, you know, do I go with noodles and sandwiches, or do I go with healthy meals?' I have had [my kids] where their iron was low, because I chose to go the noodle route."

About 17 million food-insecure children across the country face these kinds of tradeoffs, and far more than that depend on school meals for the bulk of their nutrition ... but what happens when school's closed?

"A lot of them do go hungry," says Karen Kapp, director of Better Basics, a United Way children's literacy and enrichment program serving much of Alabama. She says as kids' brains are maturing, the ones who aren't getting enough food can fall further and further behind.

Linda Godfrey, a nutrition and foodservice consultant, used to run summer-school feeding programs. She's seen the need firsthand. "Sometimes," she says, "at six and six-thirty in the morning, they would have their faces to the door. And as soon as the doors would open at eleven o'clock, they would already be lined up, and they were extremely hungry. Especially on Monday."

Children regularly fall through the cracks between school, food stamps, and community or church food banks. A recent national survey found three in five teachers regularly see hungry students.

No "surly lunchlady" stereotype here: Hillview students spontaneously gang-hug cafeteria manager Deborah Lewis. Photo by Dan Carsen.

At Hillview Elementary just north of Birmingham, curriculum specialist Tammarra Tippett helps run summer school, which includes meals. But she sees teachers step in year-round.

"I do have teachers who send food home with their students over the weekend or provide an extra breakfast snack out of their own pockets," she says, adding, "They care about the kids and they know you can't learn on an empty stomach. You can't get the results."

She's not just talking about test scores. Hunger increases the chances of academic failure, which statistics show pushes people toward unemployment or even crime. Research also links malnutrition to short-term and long-term health problems.

School systems and communities do have programs to get food to needy kids during breaks, but frequently funding is short and guardians can't manage the logistics. Summer programs especially rely on centralized feeding sites, leaving carless rural kids hungry. And of course there's pride. Food-service expert Linda Godfrey offers more perspective:

"I had children that would come up to me and say, 'I really don't want to be out of school for Christmas, because we know we're not going to get much to eat.' We can say over and over and over it's a parent's responsibility to feed their children. But the bottom line is, they don't."

A student-made poster for one of Hillview's food assistance programs. Photo by Dan Carsen.

Rachel Price has perspective of her own. She knows lots of parents like her, working full time but not making enough money for heat, transportation, and food. She says she used to refuse help, but one Thanksgiving she broke down and accepted a food basket from her kids' elementary school.

"I've been fortunate enough to have organizations that have helped," she says. "So if you find yourself in a situation where you need help, don't be too proud to ask for it, because it's not about us as parents. It's about our kids."

But even swallowing pride doesn't guarantee enough nutrition for needy children. When school's closed, some rely on a patchwork of programs that varies greatly depending on where they live. But many just go hungry. And that has ramifications not only for their futures, but for the rest of us.


December 20, 2012


For Part Two of Dan's report -- a "Backpack Buddies" anti-hunger program that sidesteps the stigma of accepting help -- click here.

Dan's education reporting can be found here.