Why Teachers Are the Real Food Heroes in Schools Today

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Salini Perera)

Very early on in Mary Katherine Trigg’s career as a teacher in rural Jackson, Louisiana, she noticed that a few of her kindergarteners were stealing and hoarding snacks from the lunch room. When she eventually sat down with the 5-year-olds to talk about their stashes, their intentions became clear: They wanted to make sure that they and their siblings had food at home later.

A similar pattern emerged when Trigg observed older students in the cafeteria, scarfing down multiple lunches and asking classmates for leftovers. It became overwhelmingly apparent that many students were unsure of where their next meals would come from — especially once school was no longer in session.

Soon enough, Trigg, along with a few fellow teachers, started to do some sneaking around of her own. “We would gather extra unopened food from the lunchroom and snack time (even though I don’t think we were technically supposed to) and put it in certain kids’ backpacks when the room was empty to avoid embarrassment for the student. We’d often send extra over the weekend too if need be,” Trigg says.

Childhood hunger is not an issue that’s exclusive to one small part of the country, and Mary is certainly not the only teacher facing it head-on in the classroom.

According to No Kid Hungry, one in six children in the U.S. struggles with hunger, and a similarly startling three out of four teachers report having students that come to school hungry. Childhood hunger affects almost every city, suburb, community, and classroom (where kids spend a majority of their time).

Naturally, the brunt of the issue disproportionately falls on teachers, forced to find short-term solutions for this epidemic.

To go beyond the statistics, we spoke to educators across the country to learn what food insecurity actually looks like in the flesh, and the harmful effects that it can have on students in the classroom.

Here’s what they had to say.

Feeding students isn’t part of the job description (but should be): “On my first day of teaching ever, I watched my teacher’s assistant pull out a loaf of bread and start making sandwiches for the students she knew were going to go home without dinner. While I knew I was teaching in an impoverished area, I didn’t know that they had nothing to eat,” says Brett Bigham a special education teacher in the Pacific Northwest.

Food insecurity isn’t an isolated issue: “I’ve worked at schools spanning the South and the Northeast and no matter where I have taught, students come in hungry. When families lack the financial resources to pack food, breakfast and school lunch may be their kids’ only meals of the day,” says Kelley Ryan, a fifth-grade teacher in Springfield, MA.

Schools are sometimes part of the problem, not the solution: “There are schools in the city where lunch means frozen chicken nuggets and rotten milk. When schools don’t have proper facilities or good fresh food, they can’t feed students’ minds and give them the energy that they need,” says Zaps, the executive director and coach at IntegrateNYC, a youth-led organization working to implement lasting change in the New York City school system.

Hunger can deeply impact students’ abilities to learn: “No matter how good of a teacher you are, if your students are hungry, that’s the only thing on their mind. There are so many studies that show if kids have a healthy breakfast and dinner the night before, they perform better on standardized tests — but that’s not possible if all your student has to eat is a stale tortilla,” says Bigham.

Mary Katherine Tigg, who now teaches in the Baton Rouge area, agrees: “Students who are worried about where their next meal will come from have bigger fish to fry than memorizing multiplication tables.”

On hunger’s physical side effects: “Headaches, stomachaches, and sleepiness are huge problems in school and almost all of them result from hunger. In response to this, I learned to ask my students what they had had to eat. One of my students said, ‘ketchup packets,'” says Ryan.

On the social stigma that comes with food insecurity: “Even if a student qualifies for free breakfast, it comes with a stigma attached to it. When classmates see you getting free breakfast, then they know that you’re poor. For kids who are already vulnerable, this adds fuel to the fire,” says Bigham.

On how teachers typically bear the brunt of finding solutions: “My students quickly noticed my snack stash and would ask if I had extra. Now I always have snacks for kids who need them,” says Ryan.

Bigham had to take matters into his own hands: “Every year I would coordinate a school-wide food drive. We would have boxes of donated food set off in a specific room and pack them up for families of certain sizes; that way if there were any students in dire conditions, we were already on top of it.”

What do we do about it?

The next time you meticulously pack an Instagram-worthy lunch box for your kids, remember that there’s a huge portion of students in America whose families lack the resources to do the same — and teachers who are confronting it. So no matter how incremental our small efforts may seem, it’s time to mobilize and join the fight.

Some Ways You Can Help

  • Educate yourself about the facts; No Kid Hungry is a great place to start.
  • Support organizations like Feeding America and United Way.
  • Advocate for in-classroom breakfast programs.
  • Support a local teacher by starting a classroom snack fund.
  • Vote to make school policy changes at the local level.
  • Volunteer to host a food drive for a local school.