For Poor Kids, Weekend Hunger Hampers Weekday Learning

May 19, 2015

When children go hungry at school, they’re less able to learn. They also experience higher levels of anxiety, irritability, aggressiveness, and hyperactivity. Often schools provide breakfast and lunch in school during the week, but what happens to those kids over the weekend?

Claire Bloom is the Volunteer Executive Director of End 68 Hours of Hunger. Those 68 hours are between Friday afternoon and Monday morning, when some kids have nothing or very little to eat. She spoke with NHPR's Peter Biello as part of our series, The First Decade. 
 

Where did the idea for this come from? And why 68 hours?

I was retired. I’m retired from the military, I retired from the Navy in 1998. And I basically didn’t do much between then and 2010. And in October 2010 I was at a book group meeting and one of the members of the book group mentioned that she had children in her school, Garrison Elementary School in Dover, New Hampshire, who didn’t have anything to eat between the free lunch they got in school on Friday and the free breakfast they got in school on Monday. And I was just stunned. I was appalled. And I said, “You’ve got to be kidding.” And she said, “Oh, no, I’m not.” So I almost immediately went down to the school district office and I said, “I just heard that you’ve got hungry kids in Dover, New Hampshire, is this true?” And they looked at me very solemnly and said, “Oh yes, we’ve actually have homeless children in Dover. It’s virtually an invisible problem. And I said, “Well, I’ve got some money I can throw at it,” and they said, “No, we really don’t have anything we can do with your money. What we really want is for someone to put together bags of food to give to the kids on Friday so they have something to take home for the weekend.” And I said, “Well, I can do that.” So I started off with the idea that I was going to be feeding children in Dover, New Hampshire. Started in 2011, because it took me a year to get the 501(c)(3), with 19 children in three Dover elementary schools. And today we’re feeding over 1,500 children in six states, with 31 programs meeting the needs of kids in 47 towns. So we’re very excited about the growth.

Where does the food, or the money for the food, come from?

Either donations of funds or donations of food. And each of our programs has drop-off locations for donations of food. And those drop-off locations can be found by going to our website. 

From an educational perspective, why is it important to keep kids well-fed over the weekend?

It’s fascinating to read the literature that tells you what happens to a child’s brain when they’ve not eaten for this period of 68 hours. For example, by Friday afternoon, they begin getting very anxious in school because they realize they’re about to go back into an environment where food is not going to be secure for them. In school Monday through Friday, they’ve gotten breakfast, they’ve gotten lunch. We don’t know what they’ve gotten for supper, but they’ve gotten somewhere between 800-1000 calories through breakfast and lunch at the school. So their behavior is fairly stable throughout the week until they come to Friday afternoon. And then as they approach this anxious time when they don’t know when they’re going to get fed, their behavior starts to get disruptive. We don’t see them through the weekend, and when they come back to school on Monday, they have headaches, they have stomach aches, they’re very lethargic, they’re very anxious, their behavior is very disruptive until we can get food into them, and that food begins to get processed by their bodies and is used by their bodies to nourish them to the point where that anxiety and that behavior can calm down. So we’re talking about losing Friday afternoon at school and most of Monday at school for these children, and that’s a big detriment to their learning. And we know that what we want is for these children to become productive members of our community. Well, the fact is that if they can’t learn, they will never grow up to be productive members of the community, and if they’re hungry, they can’t learn. They lose roughly one and a half days out of five days of school every week simply because they’re hungry on the weekend.

To what extent is this program working?

It’s working, as near as we can tell anecdotally—because remember, we don’t know who these children are—but the schools report to us universally that the children behave more responsibly, their behavior is less disruptive in the classroom, that they are learning more, they come to school Monday morning bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and ready to learn, instead of coming in and going to the nurse with a headache or a stomach ache and scrounging around to see if they can get snacks. It makes a dramatic difference in the children’s behaviors.

What’s the biggest obstacle you face in fulfilling your mission?

Our growth is limited by the number of volunteers we have who are willing to step up and be accountable and be responsible for running a program. Because we’re 100% volunteer and we have nobody on the payroll—me included—what that means is that, in order to grow, we rely on volunteers from the community to step up and say they will run a program in the community. That is our only limitation.