I am the parent of a first grader at Riverview Elementary School in Wausau. Last night, I spoke to the Wausau School Board to address hunger in our schools.
I’m working on the “no thank you table/food pantry” at Riverview. But we need accessible food pantries established on-site in all our schools. We need a clear district policy addressing this critical need.
Sections 1100 and 5900 of the Wausau School Board Policy identify advancing student learning, achievement and success as goals, stating “…it is important to provide a healthy learning environment by supporting wellness, good nutrition and regular physical activity. . . . Healthy eating behaviors and regular physical activity are essential for students to achieve their full academic and life potential.” (emphasis added) Implied in the plain language interpretation of this policy is that the students are not hungry while they are trying to learn.
We have students who do not have enough food to eat. The bottom line is that hungry students cannot learn and they cannot get the quality education they deserve as a result. Their chances at student learning, achievement and success are greatly diminished. They can’t focus and are mislabeled as “naughty” or “distracted” or a plethora of other labels. Being hungry affects their physical health – they are malnourished -and it affects their mental health. Older students who are hungry might take matters into their own hands and shoplift food because they are so hungry. Now we are dealing with our students in the juvenile justice system, which can be a downward spiral. Being hungry can affect these vulnerable students and affect their future and it does affect this community as a whole, whether directly or indirectly. It creates more work for teachers dealing with misidentified students; it creates distractions for the other students trying to learn. Let’s help improve their chances at success and equalize the playing field.
To start, there are free and reduced meals at school, and we have students where these are their only meals. They have breakfast and lunch at school, leave for the day and don’t eat again until breakfast at school the next morning. That makes for a very long weekend or extended break for them. Winter break is coming – Dec. 22 to Jan. 2 is a long time without these meals. Besides that, there are application requirements. Some are not filled out due to language barriers, embarrassment, shame or humiliation. So for some students, this is all they eat. For others, they don’t even get this service when they could qualify for it.
Food banks and Blessings in a Backpack also don’t capture all these students. Briefly, there might be problems of application requirements and program requirements I just stated. Food banks have limited hours they are open and transportation can be an issue, including not having a vehicle or ride to the food bank. Blessings in a Backpack here is limited to elementary students. Secondary students are not part of this program here, but often, they are in the same household, so a backpack meant for one is rationed through the weekend for more students. Also, there are dietary restrictions we need to consider – minority populations, for instance, tend to have higher rates of lactose intolerance and can’t digest items like macaroni and cheese that are often in these backpacks.
Food pantries placed in the schools are accessible for our students and their households. They don’t have to fill out a form. There are no issues of who does or does not qualify. They can discreetly grab what they need. They can select what is best for their potential dietary restrictions. There might be families who fall on hard times and just need to access it short-term. There are no issues as to available hours or travel – they are right there in the school for the students, parents or guardians.
Some schools have food pantries already, or the beginning phases of one. Some of our schools have greater needs than other school, but there are hungry students in every school and we need one in every school. There is so much opportunity for donation – local grocery stores, food bank donations, business food drives, grants, school food drives – and the opportunities for improvement are endless.
Every child is entitled to be treated with dignity, to have a sense of self worth and sense of who they are. When they are hungry, their chances are diminished and our community as a whole is diminished. Please help them. When our students succeed, our community succeeds. You are the individuals with power to actually make something happen; I am just a parent volunteer and concerned citizen.
I urge the Wausau School Board to adopt a policy establishing on-site food pantries in all our schools.
Tricia Zunker, Wausau
Editor’s note: Wausau Pilot & Review gladly accepts letters to the editor about issues affecting residents in and around the Wausau area. Email letters to firstname.lastname@example.org or send to P.O. Box 532, Wausau, Wis., 54403.