Food Stamp Cuts Hurt Students

On Friday, November 1, 2013, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps, will be cut by about $5 billion. The cuts will reflect the loss of money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) passed in 2009, which lifted the amount given to SNAP recipients. This funding loss will affect 15% of households throughout the country. Many of those who will suffer will be children. One of the consequences of hungry children is a disastrous impact on academic performance. 

Hungry students have difficulty learning. In fact, according to a fact sheet from the National Educators Association (NEA), students who are hungry are more likely to be retained a grade. A 2012 report published by the No Kid Hungry campaign stated that three out of five teachers say that students come to their classrooms hungry on a regular basis. 80% of those teachers say that the regularity occurred at least once a week. 

Free and reduced breakfast and lunch programs for low-income students are essential dinner matters as well. Lowering the amount of SNAP benefits for a family means a major loss in the amount of meals a family will be able to get each month. While Congress could stop the cuts, let's not kid ourselves: there is not much hope. Last month, the United States House of Representatives passed a bill to cut food stamps about $39 billion over 10 years. 

In addition to funding SNAP properly so more people will be eligible, there are other solutions to adequately feeding students. It is not enough to provide children with food, they also need and deserve nutritious meals. Tufts University found that anemia caused by iron deficiencies affected 25% of students and was tied to an inability to learn. 

Many states are using their local food supply to provide healthy school meals. The rise in popularity of “farm to table” meals provides healthier options for those who partake in those meals. The United States Department of Agriculture praised North Carolina, for example, for its robust farm to school cafeteria programs. Not only are healthier meals provided to students, there are benefits to the environment and the local economy. While low-income students are in school, it is not only important to provide them with meals. They also need nutritious meals to be ready to learn. 

Another hidden effect of poverty and school hunger is the stigma of receiving free meals at school. If students are ashamed to receive the meals offered at school or if their parents for some reason are unable to fill out the application, there is an option that some school systems are using. The Community Eligibility Option provides free meals to every student in high-poverty schools. Since every child gets a free meal, no student has to overcome a stigma and there is no burden for parents to apply for free breakfast and lunch programs. 

We expect our children to attend school and do well. We tell them that education is the pathway to success. We cannot expect our children to walk that pathway to the schoolhouse gate hungry or ashamed and be successful in spite of their condition. Increasing SNAP benefits so students can eat dinner and on weekends while providing nutritious meals made from ingredients provided by local growers and erasing the stigma of receiving free meals at school by using the Community Eligibility Option can go a long way toward helping student success. 

It would be naïve to think that hunger is the only issue for academic achievement for students living in poverty. Housing, health care, income maintenance, and a slew of other problems affect people living in poverty. The only way that we can try to alleviate some of the problems is to acknowledge they exist. A good way to start is to talk about the children who will have less access to food and may suffer in school because of the cuts to SNAP that will go into effect on November 1.

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Chris Hill

Chris is currently the Director of the Education & Law Project of the North Carolina Justice Center. Before joining the NCJC, Chris was the State Strategies Coordinator with the ACLU Capital Punishment Project. While at the ACLU, Chris engaged in public education and legislative advocacy. Chris has also worked as a Supervising Attorney for Legal Services of New Jersey, where he sought to remove legal barriers impeding prisoners' successful re-entry back into society. In addition to extensive litigation experience, Chris has spent a great deal of his legal career, including his time as a National Association for Public Interest Law (now Equal Justice Works) Equal Justice Fellow, conducting outreach to educate the community about legal issues. Chris received his B.A. and his J.D. from Rutgers University. His posts do not reflect the opinion of his current employer.

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