If there is one video that every school reformer should watch from this month’s “Education Nation” broadcasts (which were heavy with school reformers, celebrities and business people and light on reform critics), it’s the interview that Melissa Harris-Perry, MSNBC commentator and Tulane political science professor, conducted with a young boy who talks about going to school hungry.
The boy is Jahzaire Sutton, 12, who explains how hunger affected his school work and how his mom would eat less so he and his brother could have more food. Harris-Perry interviews Jahzaire, along with his mother, Angela Sutton, and Joel Berg, executive director of the NYC Coalition Against Hunger.
What makes this important? Many school reformers have failed to give much, if any, attention to the problems that poor children bring into the classroom from their outside lives. Here’s the video, and the transcript follows.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Students deal with so many issues at school, hunger should not be one of them. but sadly, it is. in a recent report, three out of five teachers say students regularly come to school hungry. and more than half of teachers say their students rely on school meals as their primary source of nutrition. Joining me now are Jahzaire, a 12-year-old, who has experienced going to school hungry, and he is here with his mom, Angela Sutton, who is vice chair of the program, Witnesses to Hunger. Thank you both for being here.
Angela Sutton: Thank you for having us.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jahzaire, I want to start with you, because I think it’s very brave that you’re willing to talk to us. Tell us, what was it like when you had to go to school hungry? How did it affect you?
Jahzaire: I wasn’t able to focus on my schoolwork and that kind of affected my report card grades.And it was very frustrating, because it’s all I could think of, food, when I went to school, because I wasn’t able to eat breakfast at home.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Did you tell your teachers that you were hungry?
Jahzaire: Yes, in sixth grade, I told one of my teachers, teacher Kathy. She did something about it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What did she do?
Jahzaire: When I told her, I didn’t ask her to do it, but she did it out of kindness. What she did is, every morning, she would bring in like snacks and chips for the whole class, not just me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Tthat part of it being for the whole class, not just for you, how important was that to you?
Jahzaire: It was important to me, because it felt like that she didn’t just care about me, she cared about the whole entire class, because she didn’t know how many students in the class were going to school hungry.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jahzaire, your mom, Angela is here. And I want to talk to you, Miss Sutton, because the work you do with Witnesses to Hunger,I know you know how hard it is for parents to even admit that sometimes their children are hungry. When you made the decision to come and be here with us today, why that decision?
Angela Sutton: Because a lot of people are ashamed, bashful. They worry about DHS [Department of Human Services] taking their children, saying they’re unfit, a lot of stereotypes. And basically, a lot of pride as well, because a lot of people such as myself we do work. Unfortunately, you have to take and pay bills … you have to make sure to maintain a roof over their head, you have to make sure bills are paid, and sometimes to buy food, you have to buy food that’s not healthy. So by the end of the month, you’re running low, because you just don’t have the money to maintain the whole month.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jahzaire, you said the hardest times [where] when you would have something to eat, but your mom wouldn’t?
Jahzaire: Yeah, she would sacrifice for me and my little brother. And sometimes I would try to push her, or try to make something to eat for her, so she could still have something to eat.
Melissa Harris-Perry: How did that affect you when you were at school?
Jahzaire: It kind of affected me, because also, food is on my mind, but my mom is on my mind, because she’s not really eating as much as I am. So it kind of bothered me too.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In the audience here is Joel Burg. Joel Berg is executive director of New York City Coalition Against Hunger. Joel, this is a familiar story to you.
Joel Berg: Yes, it is, although as you point out, it’s very rare for people to be brave enough to come on national television to discuss it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yup. What are the policy things that we can do that can affect the lives of young people like Jahzaire?
Joel Berg: We could start with living wages, so parents can earn enough to feed their families. We can universal school breakfast and school lunch free in every public classroom in America… We have all this money for stadiums and tax cuts for the rich, we have enough money for meals. and we can cut these cuts in the S.N.A.P. [federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program]. Half those benefits go to children. Whatever they’re describing it as, the truth is, it’s a massive cut to working families and kids.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Hold for me one moment. We’re going to stay on this issue. but you have a student back there with you.
Joel Berg: I do. I have Tamara. She has a fantastic question.
Tamara: What do you do if someone in your school is going hungry but they don’t tell anybody and you want to help them?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Do you have a response to that, Jahzaire. if somebody is in the school and hungry, is there something that people can do to help?
Jahzaire: If they have a best friend or something, they can always ask, you know, I’m sorry to bother you, but do you have a small snack?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Joel?
Joel Berg: We’re working with the No Kid Hunger campaign to make sure all kids have, for instance, universal school breakfast, so this room is filled with student activists from around the country. You can demand that your school have these breakfasts and they should be provided to all students, paid for entirely by the federal government.