According to the report Hunger in Our Schools 2015, issued by No Kid Hungry/Share Our Strength, three out of four public school teachers say students come to school hungry. These students cannot concentrate, are tired, lack motivation and energy, have poor academic performances or behavior, and are often sick. Ninety-three percent of educators are concerned about the long-term effects of hunger.
Many teachers reach into their own pockets to stock their classrooms with food. Debra Youngberg, an Alternative School Teacher at Westfield High School in Chantilly, Virginia, along with members of her team, stocks a closet with food they purchase from Costco. NCTE member Wendy Gassaway of Neil Armstrong Middle School in Oregon writes, “I don’t keep as much as I’d like to, partly because of my own budget and partly because middle schoolers are often too proud to admit they need items. I DO, however, keep granola bars and give them to any kid who says they’re hungry or didn’t eat breakfast.”
Policy analyst Erin O’Neill at New Mexico State University writes, “NMSU-Alamogordo has what we call the Aggie Cupboard. Donations are collected, and at least once a month food is distributed to students. Everyone is allowed some choice–students tell me it’s usually about a week’s worth of food for one person, and it really helps some of them to make it to the end of the month.”
Edwina Jordan, also an NCTE Member, of Illinois Central College described the food bank supported by faculty and staff “who form an assembly line and place a variety of items in the bags. Next posters will go up to inform anyone in need to come and pick up a bag of food. No questions asked. Each person who shows up at the designated room gets a bag of food.”
These teachers and faculty, like many educators, administrators, counselors, and staff in schools, universities, and colleges throughout the world, give food and gift cards to make sure their students eat.
In her Presidential Address at the 2015 NCTE Annual Convention, Past President Kathy Short spoke of the issue of hunger through the lens of teaching students about advocacy. “We wanted to go beyond charity . . . and beyond volunteering. . . . We wanted to engage in action that was meaningful and authentic to children.” In describing the hunger project she and her colleagues instituted at their K-5 school, she described their actions as falling under the following advocacy principles:
- Advocacy is grounded in knowledge and experience. Kathy’s students analyzed why people go hungry, looking at its causes and figuring out solutions. She said, “Move from charity to action.”
- Advocacy meets needs that are genuine and valued. Kathy’s students participated in the “global banquet,” in which a small percentage of students had a lot to eat and the majority very little, emphasizing that enough food does exist in the world but is unevenly distributed.
- Advocacy depends on and builds collaborative relationships. Kathy’s students recognized that given the complexity of factors behind world hunger, they needed to work with community and global organizations if they wanted to make a difference.
- Advocacy results in mutual exchanges among participants. Her students’ recognition and respect for those struggling with hunger led them to work with organizations engaged in sustainable projects so that families could provide for themselves. Her first graders became particularly interested in the community garden project run by a local food bank.
- Advocacy involves the use of strategies within a continuous cycle of action and reflection. This includes direct action, such as raising funds for a classmate facing hunger after the death of a parent; indirect action, as in taking seeds to a community garden; advocacy, such as creating awareness through posters; and research for action, such as gathering and reporting on information.
- Advocacy invites voices of participants in decisions.
- Advocacy involves civic and global responsibility for social justice. Kathy’s students understood that there are multiple causes for hunger, so they needed to seek solutions that could lead to social change. If power leads to the unequal distribution of food and hence hunger, then everyone needs to help the hungry.
As these stories illustrate, NCTE members are advocating on behalf of their students’ needs, and they’re raising their students’ awareness of the role they can play in doing the same for others. This is just a glimpse into how teachers are taking on the role of advocate, and as we begin the new year, we’ll share many more. Thanks to educators who get involved, 2016 will be an exciting year of change. We look forward to being part of that change with you!