Hungry kids can’t grow or learn

By United Way of King County, on March 20, 2014 | In Breaking the Cycle of Poverty, Helping Students Graduate

Guest blogger Lydia Albert, Poverty Reduction Specialist at United Way, shares insights around hungry kids.

No, Sean, you have to try bites of everything.

At first I couldn’t understand why Teacher Maria was so adamant about breakfast participation as each 4-year-old entered her diverse Central District  classroom for preschool. But after two years of volunteering with lower-income families at Head Start preschools and a year on United Way’s Hunger-Free King County team, I’m starting to understand what Teacher Maria (with her cheerful persistence and years of teaching experience) seemed to know all along about why we can’t have hungry kids in the classroom.

Because hungry kids can’t grow.

At the preschools where I worked in Seattle’s Beacon Hill and Columbia City, hunger and malnutrition looks different than what we may have seen on TV of famine in developing countries.  In my classrooms, it occasionally looked like severely underweight kids, but more often than not, it looked like Sean – a bright, high-energy 4 year old who weighed 93 pounds – twice the size of his peers.

As Sean’s mother struggled to provide for two growing boys, a steady diet of low-cost but high-calorie junk food was slowly predisposing him to potential long-term health risks. In the United States, food insecurity is linked most strongly to obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes. Luckily for Sean, a balanced meal and snack at preschool and his family’s recent enrollment in the Basic Food (formerly Food Stamps) program were providing the tools he needed for healthy growth.

Yet as Chicago Magazine, the benefits of supplemental nutrition programs go far beyond nutrition. This is the other reason preschool lunchtime is so important.  Missed meals could also mean a greater academic achievement gap and less financially secure futures for the kids in Teacher Maria’s class.

Because hungry kids can’t learn.

In addition to being the biggest kid in our classroom, when he first arrived late Sean was also one of the hardest to control and engage during learning activities. In part, his struggle to focus can also be attributed to coming to school hungry. As this infographic from No Kid Hungry shows, kids who eat school breakfast do better in math, are 20% more likely to graduate and will earn an average $10,000 more as adults.

By insisting on something as simple as school breakfast in the classroom, Teacher Maria was really pushing for Sean to succeed – in his development, in her classroom and well into his future.


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