But earlier this month, winter break came to a close and all the things we associate with “school” began again: classes and bus rides and, for over 88,000 children in the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank’s service region, free and reduced-price school meals.
Those of us who worry about kids having enough to eat breathe a little easier when school is in session. Thanks to the National School Breakfast and Lunch Programs, families who struggle to put food on the table have ten fewer meals during the week to worry about.
That’s worth celebrating not just because — of course —we want all kids to have enough to eat, but also because we know that kids perform better in school when they’re not thinking about the breakfast they didn’t eat that morning. Or, as former Virginia First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe said, “Kids can’t be hungry to learn if they’re just plain hungry.”
But school meals, on their own, aren’t enough to protect kids who are food insecure from all the negative consequences of hunger. In fact, making sure a child has three square meals a day, every day—plus a few healthy snacks—isn’t enough, either.
Here’s why: If a child is struggling with food, the adults raising them are, too. Study after study has shown that parents shield their children from food insecurity when possible. That’s why the USDA uses children skipping meals as an indicator of more severe household food insecurity: because parents will go without before asking their children to.
But kids are far more perceptive than we often give them credit for being: just ask any teacher. When a parent consistently doesn’t have enough to eat, children — even young children — start to notice. And, when they notice, they start to worry.
In my two years at the Food Bank, I’ve seen children worry about the adults they love in a myriad of ways. I’ve listened as a 12-year-old girl explained to me that part-time jobs are unpredictable and don’t provide benefits, and a 6th grade boy asked for me an extra $10 Wal-Mart gift card because his mom “could really use it.” I’ve heard a tiny girl — no older than six or seven — tell me how excited she was about the apples at a produce market, because she knew her mom didn’t usually have snacks for work, and listened to more than one child ask if a parent or grandparent can get a summer meal, too.
Listen, I work on children’s programs, and I firmly believe in the benefits of programs that serve children directly, like summer feeding sites and school meals. However, I also believe that, if we really care about children, we have to care about their families, too. Kids can’t be hungry to learn if they’re just plain hungry, true, but they also can’t learn or play or just be kids if they’re thinking about what their parents didn’t get to eat that day.
That is why programs that provide food for the entire household are so important, from SNAP benefits (previously called food stamps) to programs like our Family BackPack program (which provides family-size servings in a weekend bag sent home with children) to local pantries.
Everyone should have enough to eat — and no child should have to worry about whether or not their parent does.
Eileen Emerson is a partner services coordinator for the Food Bank and focuses on child nutrition.