NORMAN — Norman’s elementary school students may visit their nurse or health assistant for any number of reasons, but the most common, as of last year, was hunger.
“Usually students go to the nurse between the beginning of school and 10 a.m. The first question we ask is, ‘Have you eaten?’ and if the student wants something, they’re immediately given something protein-heavy like peanut-butter crackers,” said District Health Coordinator Sunny Miller. “We keep close tabs on who receives food and how frequently to identify whether or not a student is chronically hungry.”
Miller recently conducted a survey among NPS health assistants and nurses to see how many students ask for food on a daily or weekly basis, and said the numbers actually came back lower than she expected.
“I got quite a mixture and I think it goes back to the ebb and flow of demand — some days or weeks are going to be rough for these children’s families and some are going to be better,” Miller said.
Though it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact numbers and circumstances of all hungry children and teens in the Norman district and statewide, data and trends monitored by the district and the Oklahoma Department of Education show a sharp increase in students qualifying for nutritional assistance.
According to the Department of Education, 62 percent of the state’s student population is on Free and Reduced Lunch for Fiscal Year 2013. Though Norman’s average weighed in significantly lower at 49 percent, some elementary schools in the district have more than 80 percent of their student bodies on the free/reduced program.
In addition to free/reduced meals, K-12 students in Norman and across the state can receive packages of food items supplied by the Regional Food Bank and distributed at their school, to ensure they have nourishment outside of class time. Including Little Axe Elementary and three community programs in Norman, the Regional Foodbank reported 863 K-12 students receiving this type of assistance in April.
“It’s obvious that demographics are changing within our school district and our state; this is a state that has a lot of families in need. School districts must prioritize building relationships of trust in their schools, otherwise you’re shooting in the dark as far as meeting needs,” said Superintendent Joe Siano.
Emphasizing the danger of making generalizations or assumptions based on statistics, Siano said child hunger in Norman fluctuates with rises and falls in the economy and employment opportunities, and is not specific to poor parenting.
“From an administrative standpoint, communities go through cycles of up and down which are economically driven. My experience is, regardless of socioeconomic standing, parents want to do the best for their kids and face challenges in meeting needs with this up and down,” Siano said. “What I’ve seen in Norman is that during the last 10 years, people providing services through United Way are now needing to receive them.”
Numbers may be helpful in gaining a big picture perspective, Siano said, but can ultimately cloud one’s judgment in unique and sensitive situations.
“You can’t make broad generalizations about kids and families based on statistics because you start going down an inappropriate path,” Siano said. “Teachers must address issues where they see them, and we as a community must be aware of kids’ needs and not make assumptions.”
NPS Director of Counseling Sharon Heatly said many teachers are doing just that by keeping snacks in their classrooms for students who seem to be having difficulty in class due to hunger.
“Teachers may be the first to notice that a child is hungry, and those who exhibit signs of hunger consistently will be sent to the nurse or counselor, who will in turn contact the family with information on the services available,” Heatly said. “It’s a fluid process based on the needs of each child and their family.”
Common symptoms in young people, Heatly said, include acting sluggish, distracted or tired, irritable or even withdrawn and worried.
“One of the first questions we ask any student sent to the office is whether or not they’ve eaten,” said Jefferson Elementary Counselor Lisa Linke. “We as adults know that when we’re hungry our brains don’t function, we’re tired and we’re irritable, but children can’t tie the two together, which makes them more frustrated because they don’t understand why they’re not successful in the classroom.”
Research conducted by the Tufts University Center on Hunger, Poverty and Nutrition Policy found that undernutrition in early childhood delays brain development, linking iron deficiency to learning impairment and found the length of a child’s undernutrition directly correlates to the severity of learning impairment.
A positive result of the increased need for nutrition assistance programs is an overwhelming expansion of partnerships between schools, local businesses, churches and charity agencies, increasing food accessibility particularly for children at school sites and beyond.
“One very good thing to me is, kids who need food know exactly where to get it at school, and we keep close tabs on which children ask for food and how often,” Miller said. “It’s all about building trust, so students who feel safe and cared for will speak up.”
After-school programs such as United Way’s Community After School Program (CASP) and LoveWorks provide snacks to take home or weekly meals, respectively, and many local businesses and community food drives directly benefit these and similar agencies.
“Sooner Copy keeps a room full of non-perishables which I can visit any time,” Linke said. “I just go over, write down what I took, and I can give out boxes of food to any parents or caregivers who express an immediate need — I did this just recently for a grandmother who came in needing food for the children she’s caring for.”
Though needs are ever-changing and demand has steadily risen in the past years, district teachers and administrators are confident that Norman’s hungry youth will not be ignored.
“The problems we see are community problems and only solved by the community, and the schools play a major role. As I look around this community I think our success with kids, even as these statistics evolve, has been connected to our ability to reach out to United Way, the Regional Food Bank or the Cleveland County Health Department. These issues are not unsolvable,” Siano said.