Hungry for Learning

One in five children in the United States begins the school day with an empty stomach. One classroom at a time, Trinity graduates are finding ways to feed students’ appetites and nourish their minds.

photo of professor and students

words by Carlos Anchondo 
photos by Anh-Viet Dinh

Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who believed that all humans are motivated by needs. Maslow contended that our most basic needs are innate, the consequence of thousands of years of evolution, and must be satisfied before all other human needs. These physiological needs, such as air, water, sleep, sex, homeostasis, excretion, and food, come before needs like safety, love and belonging, esteem, and ultimately, self-actualization. Maslow believed that when the most rudimentary needs are unfulfilled, all higher needs become unattainable.

In 2014, more than 15.3 million children in the United States lived in food insecure households where they lacked consistent access to adequate food needed to maintain an active and healthy lifestyle. These children constitute a sizeable minority that is forced to compromise on nutrition, skip meals, and turn to emergency food sources. Fourteen states, including Texas, had a higher prevalence of food insecurity than the national average.1 For one in every five U.S. children, this basic need goes unmet before they enter the classroom.1 In a struggle for the minds of students, educators compete against an almost invisible enemy.

Meeting Students Where They Are

“Food is a basic need,” says Amy Jacobs ’98, ’99, ’05, principal of Forest North Elementary in Austin, Texas. “When it is not met, there is really no point in doing anything else: math, reading, writing. Anything. We have to make sure those basic needs are met.”

Jacobs, in her seventh year at Forest North, says that student malnutrition is a constant concern. She came to Forest North with degrees in the humanities, elementary education, and school administration. In addition to the federally funded National School Lunch Program, Forest North partners with a local church to send backpacks filled with food home to 55 children each weekend. With church financing, students are given granola bars, juice boxes, cheese, crackers, and other snack foods designed to supplement their weekend meals.

Unfortunately, Jacobs says, this is the only food some of those students consume between Friday afternoon and Monday morning. Malnourishment in turn affects academics, where the work of even the most capable student negatively suffers.

“It is just not a priority,” Jacobs laments. “It has nothing to do with their cognitive ability.”

Education professor Heather Haynes Smith ’97, ’98, a humanities and elementary education major, is a former elementary teacher and literacy coach who has always provided snacks for her pupils, a habit she continues even now with her Trinity students. For Haynes Smith, the Trinity Master of Arts and Teaching taught her to make her classroom a safe place for students with a culture where students could come to the teacher for support.

Haynes Smith says that food insecurity was a topic rarely addressed during her days as an elementary school teacher, with no simple, uniform way to identify students who were suffering.

“You have to meet your kids where they are,” Haynes Smith says. “My biggest concern now is assessment and how we determine who gets what, because a lack of food undoubtedly affects students developmentally and cognitively.”

Teach for America corps participants

A National Conversation

Autumn Kervella ’15 is a Teach for America Corps member teaching kindergarten, first grade, and second grade in New Orleans. Her charter school classifies as 100 percent free and reduced lunch, and thus qualifies to provide two meals and a snack each school day. Yet, only in her first year teaching, Kervella says she can already recognize the signs of a hungry child. A common occurrence is a child asking to see the nurse because they are “sick,” only to ask for something to eat once there.

Kervella, a communication major, says that the majority of the time students will not directly say they are hungry, but will instead be sleepy, irritable, unfocused, or burst into tears. The situation is heartbreaking to watch, and Kervella has witnessed how strongly hunger affects the classroom dynamic. She says teachers a vital line of defense to combat food insecurity.

“Whenever you are a teacher, first you have to be a nurse, a parent, a caretaker. You have to do all these things and meet the students’ needs before you even try to teach them,” Kervella says. “If a student is distraught, whether it is because they haven’t eaten or maybe they haven’t slept, you address that before you teach them.”

Kervella’s school uses Revolution Foods, which aims to provide students with healthy dining options and foster nourishing eating habits. With plans to launch a “healthy food revolution,” the company is at the crux of a national conversation about U.S. school breakfasts and lunches. With the 2010 passage of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act and First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative, some students claim that a more nutritious meal means a sacrifice in flavor or a satisfying quantity.

The hashtag #thanksMichelleObama has dominated Twitter as images of unsavory school meals popularize newsfeeds. In 2012, students from Wallace County High School in Sharon Springs, Kan., debuted a parody video of their school meals to highlight insufficient portions. As recently as 2015, students in Chicago boycotted their cafeteria food, calling for improved options.

Lucy Cevallos ’13, a biology major, is the dean of student and staff culture at ReNEW Accelerated High School in New Orleans, where she oversees everything from the school-wide behavior system to student enrichment programming to campus pride. A fellow Teach for America Corps member, Cevallos also teaches a bioethics course that discusses ethical issues brought about by scientific advances. Cevallos’ school, a charter, also employs Revolution Foods, a provider that has not resonated with students in the school and her bioethics course.

Frustrated with dining options on campus, Cevallos’ students decided to act. They surveyed 60 percent of the campus about food satisfaction and are in the process of comparing the data with Revolution Food testimonials and advertising. Since the school is classified as being almost 100 percent free and reduced lunch, Cevallos says it is regrettable that the “healthy” campus food is nothing but and is not having its intended effect.

“When we give our students an option that no one is eating and they are instead choosing unhealthy foods, we are doing the opposite of providing affordable and healthy food,” Cevallos says. “It makes me proud that my students are able to use their voices as a strength and their power as a community to professionally present this data.”

Cevallos surmises that it was never ReNEW’s intention to provide unappetizing food, but says that for many students the school meals are a constant in their lives that they cannot sacrifice to poor taste or indistinguishable meal items. Polling her bioethics course, Cevallos asked her pupils what happens to their focus when they are hungry. Similar to Jacobs and Kervella, the responses ranged from “sleepy” to “headaches” to a “negative effect on overall morale.”

Both Cevallos and Kervella have observed how food insecurity changes a student’s priorities in the classroom, an issue they themselves did not confront as students. This is a topic broached in Haynes Smith’s urban education course, where students are tasked with reflecting on how their own educational upbringing impacts their insights into the education system. Empathy is just as much a part of her classroom as any material that she teaches.

“You are shaped by your experiences, which then affect your perception of what students need,” Haynes Smith says. “Trinity offers a holistic understanding of the student where we face our own misunderstandings and realize where we are situated.”

Serving a Community in Need

Across the U.S., food insecurity manifests for a variety of reasons, primarily related to a household’s ability to access and afford food. Factors such as unemployment, low wages, substance abuse, mental health problems, and reduced government benefits can partially explain why households fight to put adequate food on the table. Encouragingly, a recent study published in January 2016 in the Journal of American Medical Association Pediatrics indicates that school lunches have actually gotten healthier since the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act was passed, and a similar number of students are partaking in the school lunch program. In the five years since the act passed, schools have been required to serve more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables with a greater overall variety.

The National School Lunch Program, which began in 1946, reaches more than 31 million students every day in 83 percent of private schools and 99 percent of U.S. public schools. Nevertheless, while school meals may be becoming healthier for students, the fact remains that a great deal of a child’s diet is influenced by food options outside of school.

Ricardo “Rick” Trevino teaches U.S. history to 11th graders at Sam Houston High School on San Antonio’s Eastside. Trevino is currently a candidate for the Master’s of Education in School Leadership at Trinity and plans to graduate in 2016. Before switching to history, Trevino taught 9th grade world geography, where his class discussed urban geography and the realities of food deserts, an urban area where a majority of residents have inadequate access to a supermarket or grocery store. Trevino’s students realized that Sam Houston’s zip code, 78220, had been classified as a food desert by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Determined to make a difference, the students began researching and made a formal presentation to the San Antonio Eastside Promise Neighborhood (EPN) to institute a farmers market at Sam Houston. The EPN’s Health and Wellness Committee then allocated $25,000 to a grant that was quickly picked up by the San Antonio Food Bank. The first farmers market kicked off in April 2015 and continued every third Saturday of each month.

Trevino says that it is important to have the farmers market at Sam Houston, as the school is a lifeblood to the community. He credits the market, run by the Food Bank, with enlightening students about the harsh truths of their community, turning passive students into informed citizens who are aware of how local families, even their own, struggle to access food.

“We now have students who are 14, 15, and 16 thinking about the decisions their community makes,” Trevino says. “Hopefully I am helping to create students who will eventually become advocates for themselves and for their neighbors and families.”

Originally from Laredo, Texas, he is fiercely passionate about giving Sam Houston students every opportunity. In a neighborhood where more than 40 percent of people or families have income below the poverty line, Trevino knows that some of his students are coming to school hungry, but says that can be hard to identify, especially since his interactions with students often yields little about their home lives. Instead, he says, he tries to educate them about buying healthier foods and exposing them to different options than the local convenience store or gas station.

Another problem plaguing the 78220 and 78202 zip codes is vehicle insecurity, where residents rely heavily on public transit and less on private vehicles. Trevino asked his students to identify those most at risk and, through a concept similar to Meals on Wheels, found five home-bound citizens to supply food to through bicycle delivery. Although the initial objective was to provide food from the market, students hand-delivered food from H-E-B to those in need. Bikes donated by Cristian Sandoval, president and founder of Earn-A-Bike, made deliveries possible. Trevino plans to expand the program in the future to include produce from the school’s gardening club.

“With these kind of experiences, students are able to understand that they are not the only person in the world,” Trevino says. “Our community is more important as a whole than the individual.”

students studying the environment around them

Establishing a Healthy Reality

Trinity alumna and neuroscience major Christina Velazquez Olson ’12 studied the unhealthy food environments around elementary schools in San Diego’s low socioeconomic areas as a master’s student at San Diego State University. Olson, who recently completed her Master of Public Health, launched her study of the obesogenic environment around elementary schools after learning that childhood obesity rates in the U.S. have tripled since 1980. Olson compared the display of unhealthy food items, like salty snacks and sugary beverages, versus the display of healthy items like vegetables and fruits. Examining neighborhoods similar to Trevino’s, Olson looked at promotions outside of a main location in the store for both unhealthy and healthy items. She found that stores closer to elementary schools had fewer healthy displays and more unhealthy displays than stores located further from elementary schools.

Avoiding supermarkets, Olson surveyed small convenience and food stores, which typically have fewer healthy options available for purchase. Olson said that a compounding problem in low socioeconomic areas, in addition to food deserts, are food swamps, where there is an overabundance of unhealthy eating options, like fast food, that are high-energy but lack  nutrients. Parents or guardians of students in these areas are regularly forced to make decisions for their children based on cost-effectiveness.

“I chose to focus on the elementary level because it is so important for forming those healthy habits and food choices,” Olson says. “So many research studies have been dedicated to trying to increase healthy consumption, but we are also starting to realize that you also need a counter-message that tells people they need to decrease unhealthy food consumption as well.”

Moving forward, Olson says that patience is necessary when studying public health and disease prevention, as eating habits do not change overnight. Whether at school or at home, Olson says that everyone has a different definition of what it means to be healthy. Curbing obesity will take time and depends on continuing a national conversation about nutrition and how food is grown.

At Lamar Elementary in San Antonio, Principal Brian Sparks ’04, ’05, ’11 is attempting to do just that. Sparks holds degrees in the humanities, early childhood and elementary education, as well as school administration. A gardening club for first grade students teaches children about horticulture, what time of the year various crops are grown, and how that produce is incorporated into meals. Ninety percent of Lamar’s students are enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program. All the more reason, Sparks says, to start the conversation about sustainable food at a young age.

“The chief focus of this program is to educate kids about how food is grown and to discourage some of the quicker and easier options that are not as healthy,” Sparks says.

In his third year at Lamar, Sparks works actively with the Parent Teacher Association to operate the club and maintain the gardening beds. he gardening club met on Wednesdays, and the fall harvest included peppers, artichokes, cilantro, and basil. Harvested produce, although small in yield, was sent home with the children. Like Jacobs, Sparks is grateful for programs like the National School Lunch Program and Breakfast in the Classroom, initiatives he says make a difference when serving a disadvantaged community.

As 2016 dawns, the campaign to feed America’s children and students will continue to be fought in the hallways, classrooms, and cafeterias of U.S. schools. Maslow’s need for food endures as a constant priority that often stands in the way of academic excellence. Yet, as the battle lingers on, Trinity alumni remain leaders in the fray. They are the educators, administrators, nurses, counselors, and volunteers who fight each day to make sure that all children have equal opportunity in and out of America’s classrooms. They are champions in the battle against hunger, against an enemy they will not allow to impede a student’s potential. With every lesson, gardening club, and student-led survey, Trinity educators continue to teach and inspire America’s students in the face of one of the world’s most basic needs.

Footnotes:
1. Coleman-Jensen, Alisha, Matthew Rabbitt, Christian Gregory, and Anita Singh. “USDA ERS - Household Food Security in the United States in 2014.” Sept. 1, 2015. Accessed Nov. 15, 2015. http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/err-economic-research-report/err194...
2.  Haering SA, Syed SB. Community Food Security in United States Cities. Baltimore, MD; 2009.
3.  Hager ER, Turner L. Successes of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. JAMA Pediatrics. 2016; 170(1):e154268. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.4268.
4.  Sifferlin, A. “Healthier School Lunch Rules Are Working, Study Finds.” TIME, Jan. 4, 2016.
5.  White, T. (2014, Dec. 29). “San Antonio’s high-poverty ZIP codes fall closer to downtown, south Bexar County,” San Antonio Express-News
6.  “Obesity Rates & Trends Overview.” The State of Obesity. 2014. Accessed Dec. 9, 2015. stateofobesity.org/obesity-rates-trends-overvie