St. Theresa Catholic School sits near a busy south Little Rock intersection, just around the corner from a stretch that includes a grocery store and a cluster of fast-food restaurants. It’s a small school, but numbers in pre-K and kindergarten are growing and there will be an infusion of new students next year, refugees from St. Edward Catholic School downtown that’s closing at the end of the term.
Two other statistics loom in this quiet, close-knit school. One is the percentage of Hispanic students—a whopping 80 percent. The other dominating stat is the number who are poor—73 percent qualify for free or reduced cost lunches. That’s roughly 144 of the school’s 197 kids who are “food insecure”; in a word, hungry.
“That’s unusual for a private school,” said Kristy Dunn, principal. “We don’t really fit the mold.”
St. Theresa’s has the need—but not the means—to provide breakfast for all students, something Dunn is working toward for next semester. In the 2018-2019 school year, she implemented a bring-your-breakfast program, which allows students time to eat food from home to start the day. Even that modest measure helped, though not as much as an all-school hot breakfast program would.
“We had observed in the 2017-2018 school year stomachaches, headaches, sluggishness, lethargy, an inability to focus,” Dunn said. “When they would come up to the office we would say, ‘Did you eat anything this morning?’ Well, no. So, we know that’s where we’re at.
“But I do say that over this year and last year with the focus on, ‘Let’s all take that time in the morning and eat breakfast,’ and making it a part of the routine, we have seen some progress.”
Among all social issues, food insecurity among any part of the population—but particularly children—is arguably the most perplexing. In a country where, as reported by RTD Online last year, between 30 and 40 percent of the entire U.S. food supply is wasted, it’s hard to comprehend how almost 12 percent of U.S. households experience food insecurity, per whyhunger.com.
Arkansas sits near the top of U.S. states in this sobering category. In its just-released report, Feed America ranked The Natural State second-highest in the nation at 17.3 percent of households “whose members may experience a lack of access to enough food for an active, healthy life.” In all, more than half a million Arkansans struggle with getting enough to eat, including about one in four children, based on 2017 data.
Little Rock-based Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance works to address the problem through its No Kid Hungry campaign, which helps connect community resources to fill the gap in households struggling to put food on the table.
“Our goal is to make sure that those kids are accessing good nutrition every day whether in school or out of school, all year long,” said Patty Barker, No Kid Hungry director. “As we like to say with the No Kid Hungry campaign, we’re making sure they have access to good nutrition where they live, learn and play, everywhere.”
No Kid Hungry serves as a resource and connecting point for schools and organizations wanting to feed hungry populations in their community and the various local, state and federal resources available to help them do it, particularly outside of school hours or the school year.
“After-school and summer meal programs can be sponsored by a school, which is a very good partner and probably the most sustainable, but it can also be offered by a Boys and Girls Club, a church, any other kind of community entity,” Barker said.
“Mostly we need to find the sustainable year-after-year program sponsors, especially those that could offer it after school and then roll into a summer program, so kids can know that’s a dependable place to go, they’re comfortable with it and the parents can rely on it.”
Feeding kids in the summertime is an especially thorny problem, said Sikia Brown, AHRA out-of-school programs director. Of the roughly 270,000 Arkansas kids eligible for reduced or free lunches during the school year, only about 10 percent access a summertime meals program, assuming their community even has one.
“There are a lot of reasons why kids are not accessing [summer] programs,” Brown said. “Transportation overall is the biggest barrier during the summer. The old-school model of the neighborhood school is pretty much done. There are very few kids even here in Central Arkansas who just walk to school. So, while we have a lot of schools who are willing to provide summer meals or after-school meals, parents have the barrier of how do I get you there, how do I get you back.”
To combat this, AHRA has become adept at creating partnerships to help bring meal programs as close to targeted populations as possible. Through partnerships with Little Rock Parks and Recreation and Central Arkansas Library System, the number of meal locations this summer has been expanded for any child to take part in. Rock Region Metro is also issuing special bus passes for youth to help overcome transportation issues to the feeding site.
Brown said besides improving access, the summer sites also remove the stigma often associated with such programs.
“I think one of the best things about this program with the library, with the splash pads, working with the city of Little Rock is that it’s no questions asked,” she said. “I don’t have to show up and validate how poor I am or how in need I am. There’s no documentation needed. I don’t have to do anything that sets me apart from any other kid who is just having a ball at the splash pad this summer. I can still get that meal.”
Such partnerships represent the brightest light in the gloomy reality of childhood hunger, as several schools in Central Arkansas have experienced firsthand. Chicot Elementary serves daily breakfast to the nearly 600 members of the kindergarten-through-fifth-grade student body and has community partnerships that provide for kids in non-school hours.
“Church at Rock Creek provides weekend food bags for our kids to take home,” said Adrienne Hawkins, school counselor. “And I have a list of churches that feed people dinner for free. We provide parents those resources so they know where these locations are. When I first started counseling, I don’t even know if I had that information, so it’s really good to see how that has changed.”
Hawkins said the issue of student hunger overall has steadily come to the forefront during her five years at Chicot. Beyond the telltale warning signs—feeling ill, sluggish or generally disengaged—she and her colleagues have developed mechanisms for gaining insight into things students are dealing with at home. Among these strategies is making the first two weeks of school less about subject matter and more about getting to know one another, the better to spot something amiss later on.
“Older kids, they’ll hide [hunger] at times from you; you have to be very proactive and very observant and know your student population,” Hawkins said. “The kindergarten students will walk down the hallway and yell out, ‘I’m hungry!’ They don’t care. But the older kid is gonna pretend a little bit. I find myself scanning those kids daily to see what’s going on with them.”
Hunger and poverty have always gone hand-in-hand, and Hawkins doesn’t kid herself over how far programs can go to meet the needs of the community. But she also sees a lot of things that give her optimism for the future, particularly in the proactive way her school and the community at large have tackled the problem head-on.
“Things are getting better, they’re not getting worse,” she said enthusiastically. “Oh, my gosh yes, it is getting better.”