Hunger has serious implications for childhood development

One out of every four children come to school each day from food insecure households, unable to pay attention to the teacher because of a lack of proper, nutritious food.

In some counties in Vermont, such as Grand Isle and Orleans, that number of food insecure children climbs to one out of every three.

“This trend [living in food insecure households] is particularly alarming because, while food insecurity is harmful to all people, it can be especially devastating to a child’s development,” said Patrick Heiman and Courtney Barthle, of the newspaper “Youth Today.”

The factors that cause food insecurity in adults are typically the causes for the children, with some minor exceptions. Some of the larger reasons are that the parent can’t afford nutritious food, and therefore cannot feed good food to their children. Or there is a lack of money or jobs, or some other factor.

“Studies found that food insecurity is higher among children of immigrants, and that food access and hunger are more prominent in less acculturated immigrant families: those with limited English proficiency, recent arrivals to the U.S., refugees and non-citizens,” said Barthle and Heiman.

There are, of course, other mitigating factors, such as parental substance abuse or housing uncertainty, but that does not mean that such factors are present in every case of food insecurity.

“There are a number of factors causing food insecurity for Vermonters and their children,” said Child Nutrition Initiatives Specialist at Hunger Free Vermont, Rebecca Mitchell. “One in seven Vermont children are food insecure; this statistic has improved over the last few years but shows us that there is still work to be done.”

One counterintuitive aspect of childhood malnutrition is obesity. It would seem odd that, if these children cannot get enough to eat, they would be able to pack on unhealthy weight.

But the problems of malnutrition and obesity sometimes go hand-in-hand, most often in cases of low income.

The cheapest food to eat is not always the healthiest, so the child needs to eat more of it to receive the same amount of nutrients.

“The problem is that the standard American diet is energy dense but nutrient poor,” said Dr. Mark Hyman, medical director of Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine. “Too many ‘empty calories’ confuse the metabolism and pack on the pounds.”

As Dr. Hyman explains, the more processed food one eats, the more vitamins that person needs to eat as well, to fuel the metabolism. And, historically, cheap food is not known to be terribly nutritious. That’s why it is colloquially known as “junk food.”

In addition to potentially messing up the health of these children down the road, poor food choices, or a lack of food in general, can also present problems in the present. Specifically, it can wreak havoc with their education.

“I have a boy in my classroom who says to me, ‘I can’t even think, I’m so hungry,’ when he gets in in the morning,” said Carol McQuillen, a kindergarten and first grade teacher at South Burlington’s Orchard School. “When some kids are starting their work, he says to me, ‘I’m so hungry.’ He’s got to eat.”

Getting children to focus during school can be an arduous enough task already. Add in food insecurity, or junk food, and the focus and energy levels of these children go out the windows as well.

However, merely giving these children food isn’t the solution to help them pay attention in class. Overly processed foods, or snacks like Pop Tarts, aren’t going to help the children in the long term.

After the child eats the Pop Tart, there’s only about 45 minutes of energy that they gain before they come down from the sugar rush.

“It’s not just if they eat, but what they’re eating,” said McQuillen, saying that children need to eat three balanced things that go together. “It could be juice and yogurt, it could be cereal and cheese; any two of three major components that are going to give them a protein [will help them] be able to hold their learning power.”

To help combat this food insecurity problem, at least during school hours, there are several federal programs that feed these students at little or no cost to the parents.

“There are various programs that can provide vulnerable children with meals,” said Mitchell. “The National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Child and Adult Care Program, and the Summer Food Service Program. These are all federally-funded programs that schools and communities can take advantage of to help feed children.”

The options in the SBP and NSLP programs are largely sorted by the household income.
Children who live in households that exist at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level qualify to receive free meals.

Those children living in households earning between 130 and 185 percent of the federal poverty level can receive reduced-price meals. Since 2001, approximately 7.8 million students have been served daily through these two programs, and that number has only grown. Since these programs were made permanent in 1975, the number of children has increased from 1.8 million served daily.

Throughout the 2014-2015 school year in America, approximately 21.5 million low-income children were enrolled in the National School Lunch Program.

“When we look around the state, there’s major issues in our rural areas, as well as our cities,” said McQuillen. “Burlington schools are over 80 percent free and reduced lunches — everybody gets free lunch, it’s just the way to do it.”

Unfortunately, sometimes the stigma of accepting charitable food also gets passed to some of these children.

“Kids don’t eat school breakfast for two main reasons: timing and stigma,” said Mitchell. “A lot of children don’t arrive at school early enough to eat breakfast before class begins, and often it ends up being the ‘needy’ kids who actually eat breakfast, which distinguishes them from their peers and cuts into social time.”

The BackPack program — which, in Vermont, is provided through the FoodBank — also prides itself on being discrete.

Food for over the weekends, which used to come in the titular backpacks, is now provided in plastic bags placed in lockers and other similar locations. This gives the children a way to eat over the course of the weekend, when they can no longer depend on the school to provide their meals.

“We also work on addressing food insecurity during out of school time,” said Mitchell. “A large part of my job is supporting sites using the Summer Food Service Program. If a school has an at least 50 percent free/reduced meal rate, they are eligible to run open summer meal sites, meaning anyone 18 and under can get a free meal.”

Out of all of the meals throughout the day, there isn’t just one that reigns supreme in terms of benefits gained. However, students who eat a full breakfast at school “are more focused, make fewer mistakes, and demonstrate better concentration, alertness, comprehension, memory and retained learning,” according to research done by Hunger Free Vermont.

“Infants and toddlers who experience food insecurity may struggle with attachment, behavioral problems and cognitive development,” said Barthle and Heiman. “In early elementary school, food insecurity impacts reading and math performance, girls’ weight gain and boys’ development of social skills.”

And the effects continue on, well into later life. Teenagers are at risk of distorted moods and behaviors, and possibly substance abuse.

“But it’s not just a matter of eating,” said McQuillen. “It’s a matter of eating something of substance in the morning, because they can’t concentrate. They need to eat and they need to move. Children that haven’t moved, their brains aren’t even turned on to learn.”

In addition to her teaching career, McQuillen also runs the non-profit Common Roots, which she founded alongside others in 2008. One of the more pertinent aspects of this non-profit is its Farm to School program, which reaches around 900 students from grades K-5.

The Farm to School program, according to Common Roots’ webpage, gives “hands-on lessons that emphasize food, farming, nutrition, and health, children gain knowledge of and access to nutritious, high quality, local food.”

This program is made possible by partnering local farmers with the schools to provide more locally sourced items of food for the children to use in their cafeterias and classrooms.

“I think the food director would say the next step of food improvement is to get the government chicken and beef out of our schools,” said McQuillen. “So that’s a year or two down the road. But the kids are eating lentil burgers and ethnic dishes . . . They’re eating so much better than they were four years ago, but there’s always a ways to go.”

The fight to feed more children most likely will not end anytime soon. But that is no reason to give up and stop trying to find potential solutions. The fight against hunger, although difficult, and especially where children are concerned, should always be worth our time.

Ed note: This is the fourth in a six-part series exploring issues surrounding hunger in Vermont.