Cuts to food stamps; unemployment; low wages; debt; natural disasters; loss of housing; rising rents, utilities and health care costs; and family instability bring about a gnawing need among children: food.
One million children in New York state go to bed hungry, according to the new state Anti-Hunger Task Force.
They live in their own homes and apartments, in hotels or in shelters, without regular meals or access to quality food.
And that means they come to school hungry, which also means they are likely to have difficulty learning and are eating poorly enough to generate health problems. Lack of proper nutrition can also lead to behavior problems. School is one place they can receive a meal, although those meals often need to be more nutritious.
Finding solutions to the state's hunger crisis is the top assignment for the new statewide task force. NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue is a member, along with experts in agriculture, nutrition and hunger programs, and anti-hunger advocates and service providers.
"NYSUT can bring a lot to these discussions. We have data on poverty in districts and an ability to work within communities because so many of our members are activists. Plus, our school health care professionals are so knowledgeable. They understand the psychology of children and adults who need to identify and accept these helping programs," Donahue said.
The task force is also charged with improving access to locally grown and produced fresh foods.
NYSUT, Donahue said, has a long history of fighting to end hunger, especially in recognizing the interconnection between nutrition and student performance. NYSUT locals and staff members at headquarters and in the union's regional offices collect and donate hundreds of thousands of food items for students and families in need. The statewide union has recently become a partner with the American Cancer Society in a healthy-living community outreach program.
Because hunger is a long-term problem, the task force is charged with creating lasting solutions to increase access to food, including bringing more people into SNAP — Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps — and more students into school breakfast and lunch programs.
Although many people rely on food stamps, one quarter of eligible New Yorkers do not receive them. The end of the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act's temporary boost in SNAP stings the thousands of people who do rely on food stamps. It means a $332 million cut to New York's SNAP funds and takes away 21 meals a month for a family of four. Benefits this year will average less than $1.40 per person per meal.
Nevertheless, Congress is threatening to cut billions more from the food stamp program. With the U.S. Council of Mayors reporting that 43 percent of people who use food pantries are working poor, additional cuts will put even more pressure on food banks, which already find it difficult to keep up with demand.
Since the Great Recession started in 2007, food stamp use has doubled, according to the Hunger Action Network, a statewide anti-hunger coalition that is pushing for universal school lunch.
The need is acutely evident. The New York State Community Action Association reports that child poverty rates in upstate cities continue to climb — approximately half of children living in Buffalo (46.6 percent), Rochester (50.4 percent) and Syracuse (49 percent) live below the poverty line. NYSCAA serves the state's 51 community action agencies, providing services and advocacy to improve the quality of life for low-income citizens.
In New York City, where the child poverty rate is 31.4 percent, the highest in more than a decade, only 25 percent of schools participate in school breakfast programs, the lowest among large cities in the country, according to the Hunger Action Network.
State Education Department figures show 16 New York districts participate in the National School Lunch Program's Community Eligibility Option, which allows all students in high-needs schools to receive breakfast and lunch at no cost. It takes away the stigma of kids having to apply and be singled out.
Two years ago, before Schenectady schools received a grant for all students to receive free breakfast and lunch at school, hunger was hurting many of the students, said Luis Grevely, a 10th grade social studies teacher and member of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers.
The ones who were the hungriest, he said, usually sat slumped in their seats, lethargic. On Fridays, he brought in food for his at-risk students.
"The simplest snack can turn into a meal especially if they haven't eaten in awhile," he said. "That can be the change from pass to fail. When kids are worried about what they're going to eat, they are not worried about the state exam at the end of the year or day-to-day classroom assignments," said Grevely.
Now, he said, the grant has made a "huge difference. Kids are eating and they come to school because if there's no food at home, guess where they can go eat?"
The issue of hunger outside of school is also a major concern.
"Obviously, it's getting worse, especially in some of our rural areas," said Donahue. She noted the efforts of the Malone Teachers Association, which prepares a regular free community meal and education program that now attracts upwards of 350 people in the Franklin County community. Just a year ago the program served 50.
Some working parents do not have time to prepare healthy meals, Donahue said. Others do not know how to eat nutritiously. Some are too poor.
Providing education and services and coordinating resources can help, she said. One of the ways is to bring food from farms into schools.
New York State Farm to School legislation was passed in 2002, charging SED and the Department of Agriculture and Markets to facilitate the purchase of New York farm products by schools and universities. The national Farm to School Network reports operations in more than 10,000 schools spanning all 50 states.
One New York state program, Hudson Valley Farm, uses farm food, food educators and school gardens at downstate schools in Beacon, Cold Spring and Garrison. Saratoga Springs schools receive local apples through Farm to School, and many other schools that do not have their own land are contracting with farmers.
Depending on the size, location and budget of the school, bringing fresh food to the cafeteria poses different challenges.
Julie Holbrook, cafeteria director and member of the small, rural Keene Support Staff Association, grows and cooks the food she uses to educate students about food content.
"Food has an effect on the students' ability to focus and to concentrate, positively and negatively," said Holbrook. "My hope is to teach that to all of the students eventually."
For updates on the work of the state's Anti-Hunger Task Force, check www.nysut.org.
LET'S GO! FOR HEALTHY LIVING
Numerous elementary schools across the state take advantage of NYSUT's 24/7 Let's Go! a healthy-lifestyle program that helps young students develop healthy living habits. The program, developed by the NYSUT Health Care Professionals Council, encourages students to take seven positive steps a day, and track their progress by earning stickers placed on an action chart. The program, which was launched in 2005, is endorsed by the American Cancer Society. To learn more, visit www.nysut.org.
FOR MORE INFO
For information on Farm to School, visit www.farmtoschool.org/NY/.
To learn about how the program works at one school, visit itswhatwedo.nysut.org/profile/julie-holbrook.