With the school day winding to a close, a student at Elkin Elementary School is deep in thought. With her bag almost full, she runs her eyes across all of the remaining options before her. Tuna? Black beans? Peanut butter? She settles on a can of chicken noodle soup. “My sister isn’t feeling well,” she says, “I’ll take this for her.”
Elkin is just one of the schools that Delaware Valley Fairness Project has brought Kids’ Choice pantries to in the past year. The initiative to put Kids’ Choice food pantries right inside the schools, that elementary and middle schools students can access directly, also began in Penrose School and Elkin Elementary during the 2017-2018 school year, serving about 75 households in total.
How much can going to school hungry affect a student’s performance? Research says: a lot. Hunger in school children has been linked to lower test scores, increased behavioral issues, and even adverse effects on cognitive development.
Statistics from Feeding America show that 21.7% of children in Philadelphia were food insecure in 2016. That’s over 4% higher than the national average, and means that more than 1 in every 5 students in a Philadelphia classroom is likely to be experiencing food insecurity.
There is no one definitive definition of food insecurity, but the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations defines food insecurity as “A situation that exists when people lack secure access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life.”
For schools in more neglected parts of the city, like Penrose and Mitchell in Southwest Philadelphia, and Elkin in North Philadelphia, where 100% of the student population qualifies for free or reduced lunch, the problem is even worse.
Philadelphia has a reasonably large collection of food pantries to assist households experiencing food insecurity, and the Coalition Against Hunger has a useful resource for locating them. But what if an elementary school student doesn’t have parents who actively seek these resources? What if there are no adults home to cook when a student gets home from school? What if, for a school like Penrose, there are not an abundance of these resources nearby?
For reasons such as these, Delaware Valley Fairness Project began the initiative to put Kids’ Choice food pantries in schools, within easy reach of the students who need them the most. Students in especially food insecure households, ranging from Kindergarten to 8th grade, are identified by the teachers, counselors, and administrators. The students can access these pantries once a week and select from a variety of options, including ready-made snacks such as applesauce and cereal bars, as well as canned foods and other meals requiring preparation that can be brought home to their households.
The pantry options encourage students to pick out well-balanced meals that include protein items such as tuna and beans, grains such as pasta and rice, and fruits and vegetables ranging from carrots and green beans to diced tomatoes.
In the coming school year, we will be expanding the program to John Welsh Elementary School in North Philadelphia, and are still in search of more schools to take on Kids’ Choice pantries.
There is no quick fix to the systems that perpetuate hunger and food insecurity and these problems will not disappear overnight. However, by making food more readily accessible to the students most in need, these Kids’ Choice school pantries have the ability to “make life a little more fair,” one student at a time.