Hunger Pains: Teaching Hungry Students

Hungry Students

Cranky. Tired. Lethargic. Moody. Sick. Failing. These are just some of the many things that can happen to students when they are hungry. Classroom teachers, and schools, in particular, can play an important role in helping children learn and stay healthy. Here’s how.

Hunger is a problem

2017 research shows that more than 13 million children in low-income households go to school hungry in the nation’s suburbs, cities, and rural areas. The National School Lunch Program, which is funded by the USDA, provides free or reduced-price school lunches to over 22 million students. Families who fear that food will run out and money not being available to buy more can be put under tremendous stress. Parents may decide to skip meals so that their children can eat. A child’s meals could shrink over some time or disappear completely. No Kid Hungry reports 74% of educators to have students who come to school regularly hungry.

Hunger is indeed a problem. 46% of children who come from low-income homes say that hunger negatively affects their academic performance. They aren’t wrong. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Pediatrics, and the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has published studies that show hunger has a significant impact on a child’s behavior and performance at school. Hungry children are more likely to have lower math scores. They are also more likely to repeat a grade or come to school late or miss it completely due to illness.

The stigma of hunger

Research has shown that students who eat breakfast at school have higher academic achievement, especially in math. Many students avoid the school cafeteria’s free breakfasts and lunches because of their hunger stigma. Students may feel embarrassed if they have to arrive at school earlier than their classmates to use the lunchroom or receive a school lunch for free. Students are embarrassed when they don’t have the money to pay for school lunches. Students may feel more hungry if they avoid eating the food and meals available. New initiatives are being developed to make student meals more accessible.

Make sure all eat during school hours

Some states have programs that help to de-stigmatize hunger. Many schools make breakfast an after-the-bell event, rather than forcing students to come to school early to get to the cafeteria. New York City schools started offering free breakfast and lunch to all students starting September 2017. This has helped reduce the stigma surrounding “qualifying” for such programs.

According to Hunger Solutions NY, “Traditional breakfast is served in the cafeteria before school begins. This can lead to low participation because of factors such as tight schedules and concerns about stigma.” A growing trend in Breakfast After the Bell programs helps to reduce hunger-shame. It integrates breakfast into the school day, and even into the classroom. TheEffect of Offering Breakfast in Class on Student Performance Journal of Policy Analysis and Management shows that math and reading achievement scores increase when breakfast is moved to the classroom from the cafeteria.

For all occasions, create grab-and-go snacks and meals.

Snack stations throughout the day, or Second Chance Breakfasts (also known as Mid-Morning Nutrition Breaks), can help ensure that students are fed and can concentrate on learning. Students can make it easier to get through school by providing snacks such as fruit and granola bars in the central area or all classes. Students can grab a quick and convenient breakfast from a mobile service cart or vending machine in their school’s high-traffic areas. This eliminates the need to go to the cafeteria or show a lunch card.

Covering weekends and summers

Even though many students are well-fed during the school week, weekends can be difficult for some. According to End68HoursofHappen, a non-profit that provides food for students at home, “After a week in which they have at least two meals a day, they will leave school hungry.” This is also true for school vacations and summer when subsidized meals are not available. No Kid Hungry states that only 17% of eligible children are receiving free summer meals. However, more schools and community groups are offering free meals for all during the summer.

Students can be empowered by mindfulness.

Students can use mindfulness to evaluate their mental and physical health. Instead of rushing to satisfy hunger, students can learn how to stop and assess their moods and needs. Mindfulness teaches students to be present with their feelings and ask themselves questions such as: Is it me that is angry or something else? Am I tired? Am I hungry? Do I need to stop and take a break? Are you ready to start this assignment? Research reveals that mindfulness helps students become more in control over their emotions, attention spans, empathy, and anxiety levels. Mindful Schools. Incorporating mindfulness practices and hunger-fighting programs into your school can help students learn and prevent them from becoming destructive.

More information on student nutrition and hunger:

  • This is the Student’s Brain on Trauma
  • School Food Insecurity: How can administrators and teachers cope?
  • No Kid Hungry

Jennifer L.M. Jennifer L.M. Gunn worked for 10 years in magazine and newspaper publishing before she moved to public education where she has been almost a decade. Gunn is a New York City curriculum designer and educator at public high schools. Right to Read is a literacy acceleration program that focuses on urban youth. It’s rooted in social justice and Jennifer is its creator. She is an educator writer and co-founder of EDxEDNYC’s annual Education Conference. This conference won the New York City Department of Education Excellence in School Technology Award. Jennifer is a regular speaker at conferences on topics such as adolescent leadership, literacy, and innovation in education. Follow Jennifer online at or on Twitter.