Going Hungry: How Poverty Affects School Performance

Last week, the Department of Education approved Mayor Bloomberg’s latest proposal to close 24 more schools due to poor performance ratings. These 24 schools come on the heels of the 23 schools he closed last year, bringing Bloomberg’s grand total of school closings (or schools being phased out) to 184 since 2002. Yes, he has opened 589 new schools, and yes, the students at these schools are performing much better than the previous students; however, before we congratulate the mayor, we must consider that the newer schools are vastly smaller and have fewer students who are facing serious challenges such as special needs and poverty—it’s ironic how Bloomberg, who is obsessed with New Yorkers becoming healthy eaters, continues to turns a blind eye on how food (or lack thereof) affects the performance of many students who attend these struggling schools, many of them situated in the poorest areas of the city.

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP), there are 16 million children in the United States whose families are living in poverty, or in more direct terms, whose families have an income below the federal governments figure of $23,021.00. Based on this calculation, 45% of children in the United States are living in poverty. In New York City alone, 1/3 of children live in poverty, and yet, any conversation discussing the correlation between hunger and New York City’s low performing schools seems to have fallen off the table, despite study after study proving the long-term affects of  under-nutrition on kids:  “The effect of undernutrition on young children (ages 0-8) can be devastating and enduring. It can impede behavioral and cognitive development, educability, and reproductive health, thereby undermining future work productivity.” So, why in a city drowning in food (there are 4.200 restaurants in NYC) are we not seriously talking about hunger in the classroom?

While the mayor has addressed hunger in our schools, he has done so only on a surface level. Both he and the Department of Education believe that offering free breakfast and lunch is a viable solution for children suffering from poverty–we are feeding them, and not only once, but twice, they argue, so they should be able to perform optimally. But these children are not really being fed. To a child whose last meal was lunch the previous day, cereal and an apple, will hardly be satiating, and this fact, is what the mayor and many others fail to understand–children who live in poverty will only eat at school and, many times, they will only eat during the school week, rendering these meals completely insufficient in quelling their hunger and providing them with a balanced diet; further, children who are under-nourished are more susceptible to sickness and infection, resulting in more missed days of schools and compounding the issue of poor performance.

It’s time that the Department of Education stopped closing schools at an alarming rate for “poor performance,” and instead sat down to an authentic dialogue discussing the issue of hunger and poor performance. It’s time that the mayor shifted his focus from using test performances as the primary means of evaluating schools and teachers, and began to ask the more nuanced question of how many children tested and performed poorly because they were sitting in classrooms thinking about food instead of Mark Twain. But this mayor does not like nuance, and so, until he is ushered out of city hall, the issue will remain a mere aside, an afterthought, rather than a dialogue. And sadly, this year, more poverty-level students will need to find new schools in which to sit and suppress the gnawing hollowness that is hunger.

Maria Smilios

Resources to help stop child hunger in Amercia:

No Kid Hungry

Feeding America