Marvin Callahan, a first grade teacher at public school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, has started a program to send backpacks full of food home with some of his students on the weekends after witnessing widespread hunger.
When he started the job 21 years ago, he said he had no idea how many families were struggling to feed their children or keep a roof over their heads. New Mexico has the highest rate of child hunger in the country, with nearly a third of children going to bed hungry, although the problem is widespread enough that three-quarters of the country’s teachers say students routinely show up to school hungry.
In response to the problem, Callahan and other members of the community send 37 children home with backpacks full of food each weekend: two breakfasts, two lunches, and two dinners. As Carolyn Gregoire of the Huffington Post reports, “Retired teachers come in on Thursdays to fill up the backpacks with food items like breakfast bars, oatmeal, macaroni and cheese, beefaroni and sliced turkey — things that the kids can easily put together themselves.” He began the program two years ago out of his own pocket, although it now has donations from members of the community and local organizations.
“It’s hard for me to go home some weekends when the kids are saying, ‘I don’t want to go home because I don’t have anything at home,’” he told the Huffington Post. “I just hope that when I get home and open my refrigerator and there’s food in there, I hope that they have the same thing.”
There has been a sharp rise in hunger across the country since the recession, with the share of households experiencing food insecurity, or the inability to afford adequate food, at 14 percent last year, or 17.5 million families. That’s an increase from just 11 percent between 2005 and 2007. And more than one in five children lived in a food insecure household in 2012. While most food insecure families can keep eating by buying very basic foods, 6.8 million households had at least one family member who had to eat less, and 765,000 children lived in those households last year. These bouts of food insecurity hit families for an average of seven months out of the year and for a quarter they happened almost every month.
Hunger isn’t just a discomfort for children. It can have a severe impact on their education and development. Only half of the 21 million children who are eligible for free breakfast at school participate, but if that gap were closed, 3.2 million students would have higher test scores, there would be 4.8 million fewer absences, and there would be 807,000 more high school graduates. Hungry students struggle to keep up with the cognitive development of their peers and have a higher risk of mental health problems.
One way to get more food to hungry students would be to expand free meal programs to the entire district. That’s what schools in Boston, Dallas, Indianapolis, New York City, and Winston-Salem, NC are doing by participating in a Department of Agriculture program that lets all students eat free breakfast and lunch, regardless of income, to increase take up and reduce paperwork. But when they go home, they may still face empty shelves, a problem that may only be solved with higher food stamp participation and higher incomes.