Everyday Heroes

Teacher Creates Food Pantry For Her Hungry Students

For some teachers, this form of assistance is just part of the job.

Childhood hunger is a serious issue in America. 13 million children in America struggle with food insecurity—that’s nearly 1 in 5 kids. And hungry students can’t learn because they’re tired, irritable, easily distracted and just plain… well, hungry. That’s why one teacher set up an “invisible safety net” in her classroom to take care of these kids.

Teacher Katherine Gibson Howton works at a small high school in Oregon. Nearly 20 percent of the students in her school face housing insecurity and an equally high percentage receive free or reduced-price lunch, she said in an interview with the website Scary Mommy.

“Almost every teacher I know has a cabinet in their classroom with emergency food for their hungry students. This is the cabinet I share with another teacher, Julie Mack. Children come into our classroom everyday telling us they are hungry,” Howton writes in her post.

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And they’re not alone. According to the charity No Kid Hungry, more than a third of teachers purchase food more than once a month for hungry students, a 2015 report said. In fact, teachers spend $35 a month, on average, to keep food in their classrooms.

This is crucial, as poor nutrition can lead to a variety of learning issues. Undernourished children learn more slowly and have poorer retention than well-fed children, according to the National Institutes of Health. And they are more likely to have behavioral issues too. According to the Harvard School Breakfast Research Summary, teenagers who deal with food insecurity are more likely to be suspended and have difficulty getting along with their peers.

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“It is up to us to notice that [children] are distracted, tired, grumpy. Skilled and compassionate teachers learn to ask if there is food in the house and when was the last time you ate?” Howton’s post continues. “And the really skilled teachers just know when to make an extra sandwich, grab an orange, make a bag of popcorn or bowl of oatmeal, and set it in front of a student and tell them to eat.”

Even with food assistance and free meals, many families still struggle and the result is hungry students going to school on an empty stomach. And with after-school nutrition programs under fire in the new proposed budget, teachers are getting even more worried.

“They’re cutting the federal safety net, and we’re providing this invisible safety net that no one even knows about,” Howton said. “It’s not about me, or my classroom, or this school — it’s universal.”