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Food Insecurity: The Hidden Equity Hurdle in Our Schools

This is a guest post from my colleague and friend, Brett Bigham. Brett is the 2014 Oregon State Teacher of the Year and was a National Education Association National Educator of Excellence Award recipient in 2015. He will travel to Africa in 2018 as an NEA Global Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @2014ortoy. You can find out more about the non-profit No Kid Hungry and the amazing work they do to create equitable learning opportunities for every child by ending childhood hunger by visiting //www.nokidhungry.org/

I didn't know there were kids going hungry every day in this country until my first day in my own classroom. 

Living in Palm Springs, Calif., I'd been hired to take over a special education classroom because there was a teacher shortage, and our state chose to plug the hole by hiring teachers who had no background in education. I had a few months as a substitute and a degree in speech, but I was a journalist, not a teacher.

As a new teacher, I didn't know then what I know now: Childhood hunger isn't rare. Three out of four educators say they have students regularly coming to school hungry, according to a newly released report from No Kid Hungry.

On that first day, I shared with my students about my experiences backpacking through Europe and Africa the previous year. They had question after question: What was the Eiffel Tower like? How was the Soviet Union different? Did I go in the Pyramids? Did I see a mummy?

One student had different questions. What did they eat there? Did they have hamburgers in Egypt? Did I eat cheese in Switzerland? In those first few hours with my class, I wasn't sure why this skinny blond kid named Byron, a boy with the sharp cheekbones and baggy clothes, seemed so fascinated with food.

My ignorance lasted until lunchtime. 

While his classmates pulled out of lunch boxes and paper bags their sandwiches with carrot sticks, their juice boxes and cookies, Byron chewed on one empty tortilla. They had pudding cups and potato chips. But Byron had a dry, plain tortilla. What's more, he couldn't take his eyes of their food.  

Then Byron dumped the rest of his lunch on his desk: eight marshmallows. Not the big ones, but the little pink and white ones. He lined them up on his desk and methodically ate them slowly.

A tortilla and eight mini-marshmallows.

My soul died a little bit at that moment. I'm looking at this eleven-year-old boy with big blue eyes and a sunny smile and I realize those cheekbones were not from his genetics, but from chronic hunger. Those big blue eyes were so big because his body was eating itself.

I soon realized that Byron wasn't alone. One in five U.S. kids struggle with hunger.

I had seen food insecurity before. Nobody goes to Africa without seeing hunger. But Byron was my kid in my class. He was my responsibility. Still, I had no food to give him, and, I'll be honest, I had no money. I had just paid my first and last month's rent and a deposit that zeroed out my bank account.

As one of Byron's classmates opened a Twinkie package and Byron's head snapped around when he heard that crinkle of the plastic being torn open, my heart broke.

That's the moment that I realized I had a teacher superhero in my class. My assistant, Debbie Coats, walked to Bryon's desk and sat down a peanut butter sandwich. While Byron was studying his mini marshmallows, Ms. Coats had opened her drawer and made him a sandwich.

She did this every day. She watched to see what he would bring in and made him a sandwich on the bad days. When he showed up with half-ripe oranges and moldy dumpster bread, she was there for him.

Those peanut butter sandwiches also seemed to wind up in Byron's backpack at the end of the day. What's more, from that day forward, I became determined to be a Debbie Coats. Like the majority of teachers who regularly spend around $300 a year out of their own pockets buying food for students, I chipped in for the bread and peanut butter and began leading a food drive in my school. My back-to-school box contains pens, pencils, art supplies, and peanut butter.

Fortunately, there are sustainable solutions like schools meals that can end childhood hunger. These federal nutrition programs that are already operating in schools can make sure kids have access to food when they need it—regardless of zip code, age, and time of year or day.

When kids have access to school breakfast and school lunch, the impact on test scores, attendance rates, discipline problems and the lives and future well-being of students is significant.

The peanut butter is a little safety net. No Kid Hungry is a huge safety net, an army of Debbie Coats. This year the National Network of State Teachers of the Year formed a partnership with No Kid Hungry so that as teacher advocates, we do what we can for every Byron in this country. NNSTOY and No Kid Hungry are determined to make sure that all students have equal access to the proper fuel they need to learn and grow up happy, healthy, and strong.

The next time you meet a teacher, ask them if they keep food in their room. Odds are that answer is yes. And now you know why.

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