Teachers see more hungry students

Three out of five public school teachers in Maryland say they have students who regularly come to school hungry because they are not getting enough to eat at home, according to a new survey.

The national survey from the nonprofit group Share Our Strength, to be released Thursday in Prince George’s County, also found that students who are hungry have lower academic performance and suffer from health issues and behavior problems.

“When students are hungry and distracted, they’re not learning,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a statement. “To set kids up for academic success, we must make sure they’re getting the healthy food they need at breakfast and lunch so they can concentrate in the classroom throughout the day.”

The nonprofit group, which seeks to end hunger among school-age children, surveyed 1,000 elementary and middle school teachers nationwide for the report on hunger. An oversampling was taken of teachers in Colorado, Maryland, Arkansas and Los Angeles.

“When you have teachers who want to see children learn, and more than half say this problem is getting worse — it’s not surprising, but it is powerful, it’s compelling and it’s something this country can’t tolerate,” Tom Nelson, president of Share Our Strength, said in an interview Wednesday. “We need our country to be strong and competitive, and that’s not going to happen if [students] are not supported to thrive and to learn.”

Tens of thousands of students in the Washington region are eligible for free and reduced-price meals. About 44,000 students in Fairfax County received subsidized meals last school year, while about 70,000 in Prince George’s and a little more than 47,000 in Montgomery County received such assistance. But school officials estimate that thousands more would be eligible but have not applied.

According to the survey, 60 percent of teachers said they have students who regularly come to school hungry. In Maryland, the share was slightly higher, at 63 percent.

Joan Shorter, director of food and nutrition services for Prince George’s schools, where 57 percent of students received free and reduced-price meals last school year, said the county is trying to find ways to address hunger in the classroom, a problem that teachers in the survey said is growing.

This school year, Prince George’s will offer free breakfast to every student in 57 schools, regardless of family income. Shorter said the school system added 15 schools to its program, which is paid through federal funds administered by the state and grants from Share Our Strength.

“Principals have been pleased with the program,” Shorter said. “They have reported less absenteeism. Students are coming to school, getting there on time. Less visits to the nurse. They are nourished, and they are ready to learn.”

Shorter said most of the breakfast programs are offered in the elementary schools. This year’s expansion will include adding kiosks that will offer breakfast food in high schools.

White Oak Middle School in Montgomery implemented a similar plan two years ago for its sixth-graders.

“We have up to 100 more students eating daily than before,” said Virginia de los Santos, the principal at White Oak. “We targeted sixth-graders so we could help them to develop better habits early. We are finding it has been very successful.”

Ovetta Wiggins covers Maryland state politics in Annapolis.



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