By Mary Grace Stoneking, FoodCorps service member
Hunger carries different meaning to different people. For me, hunger means it’s been a few hours since my last meal, and I am starting to plan in my head what I may eat next. But in the classrooms at King and Tate Elementary it means something entirely different to over 80% of our students. This was made clear to me when I lead a lesson on food security and hunger with the 3rd graders at both schools. I began with simple questions such as how do you feel when you feel hungry? What time of day do you get hungry? Yes, a few students had answers much like my own would be: “When I start feeling hungry I just get up and go to the fridge!”; “I get hungry when I smell dinner; “Sometimes I get hungry right before lunch”; and so on. But unfortunately, the majority of the answers didn’t just describe a few minutes while waiting for our dinner to be cooked. Most of the answers consisted of, “I get really dizzy and sometimes I feel like I am going to puke”; “I am always hungry because food is expensive”; “ I can’t pay attention in school, and sometimes get really angry and hurt my friends”. Hunger for a multitude of our students is a real problem, a problem that doesn’t just go away after looking in the fridge.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what hunger looks like in the two schools where I serve because it is so invasive that it affects every aspects of our students’ lives. You could look at any aspect of a hungry child’s life and connect it back to their malnourished bodies and minds. It takes a toll on their social lives, how they are doing in school, what they can do physically, their sense of self and emotional intelligence, etc. When I am in a classroom and a student is not listening, it is not because they do not want to learn, but often because their hunger is preventing them from doing so. When a student cannot control their emotions or behavior, it is likely that they are hungry or that their bodies are fueled with foods that are insufficient. One student told me it was harder for him to make friends because he gets so angry all the time due to his hunger. What does hunger look like? It looks like a child who is robbed of her full potential, a child who could do anything, but because her body is starved, her mind likewise languishes, a child with a very bleak future.
At a time when education budgets are under such scrutiny, and the future of public education is uncertain some may ask why should we invest in services such as FoodCorps. Why should we be concerned with food education when our schools can’t afford proper books, technologies, and other materials seen as essential for the cultivation of young minds? Some may think that focusing on food, gardens, and nutrition in the classroom is a waste of time, that this sort of education should happen at home. But what good are books and new technology if there is no food at home and all you can focus is on is the pain in your belly?
If we do not invest in these programs, we are setting students, our schools, and our communities up for failure. Our food system has isolated us from food, it has disconnected us from the sources of our food; it has taken away our power to know and to choose what we put in our bodies. If my students do get to eat, they eat foods that are completely devoid of minerals and vitamins that are essential for their development, which is why most of them cannot control their behaviors or emotions, cannot focus in school, and do not develop to their full physical, emotional or mental potential. I am discovering moreover, that even when my students are offered access to fresh, healthy foods, it is alien and strange to most of them; they often do not want to try it, or certainly do not know how to prepare it. Without this knowledge how do we expect them to build healthy eating habits? How can we expect them to make healthy choices?
My first day of service, I walked into the cafeteria at one school to talk to students about food. I asked what their favorite vegetables were and got responses such as “ice cream” or “noodles”. After many lessons inside and outside in the garden, after countless taste tests of new foods in the cafeteria and classrooms, I had one student say “I use to not like lettuce, but after trying it a lot of different ways and seeing how fast it grows, I like it”. This student now has tools to nourish her body, and is open to trying new foods that will help with that process.
For her, and so many students like her, she has gained new power, not only to eat healthy, but to take control over other aspects of her life, especially her ability to focus and learn. Her education was controlled by hunger, but it is now hers to control. This is what FoodCorps service, and other similar programs do. Through investments in preventing childhood hunger in our schools, we educate students about healthy food choices, and in so doing, we are planting the seeds that may just help them reach their potential. By serving and empowering these children, we are seeding not only their future, but ours. Legend has it that a pioneer, gazing for the first time at the Grand Canyon said, “Something big happened here.” Considering the difference that our gardens are making, in the life of even one child, I believe the same can truthfully be stated about FoodCorps, something big is happening here. Please help it grow.
FoodCorps Service Member Mary Grace Stoneking was a runner-up in the 2017 FoodCorps Victory Growers Award “for a compelling account of hunger and food insecurity,” winning a $1,000 prize for her service site, Van Buren School District in Van Buren, AR. The award, sponsored by C&S Wholesale Grocers, highlights that many children struggle with hunger and food insecurity, and that the food they receive at school is the most important meal they will get all day.