"I was hungry and you gave me something to eat...” Matthew 25:35
"Walter Cunningham was sitting there lying his head off. He didn't forget his lunch, he didn't have any. He had none today nor would he have any tomorrow or the next day.”
(To Kill A Mockingbird; Harper Lee, Chapter 2)
With the arrival of August, summer vacation from school is ending. Each Monday seems to bring a whole new round of Facebook posts from parents, who like me, share pictures of their kids heading back to school. I love looking at all the bright, smiling faces of these young scholars dressed in new outfits, backpacks slung across their shoulders, and lunch boxes held tightly in their hands, posing for that annual family photo.
Yet, there is another picture we all need to see as we send our nation’s children back to school. However, this one you will probably not find posted on Facebook. It is the face of Hunger. It’s presence in our schools and in each classroom of every grade is growing at an alarming, some would say, epidemic rate, that is threatening our nation’s future!
According to No Kid Hungry: Share Our Strength website: www.nokidhungry.org
- more than 48.8 million Americans—including 16.2 million children— live in households that lack the means to get enough nutritious food on a regular basis. As a result, they struggle with hunger at some time during the year. That is 1 out of 5 kids in America.
- 22% of kids under the age of 18 (16 million) live in poverty.
- Nearly half of all people who use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or food stamps) are kids.
- On an average day - 9.8 million students receive a free or reduced priced breakfast.
- Another 10.6 million eligible kids go without such a meal.
You do not need to tell teachers or lunchroom staff about the face of hunger in our schools. They see it every day in their classrooms and in the school lunchroom. They know hunger has a major impact on a student’s ability to learn as well as effecting classroom behavior. I know from my own experience working in a school, many educators and lunchroom staff, quietly spend their own money to buy students food during the school day. According to one report: “Fifty-three percent of teachers spend an average $26 of their own money each month providing snacks for their students.” (Ava Wallace, August 24, 2012 - http://neatoday.org/2012/08/24/child-hunger-in-schools-a-growing-problem)
Sadly, there is also a stigma attached to hunger in our schools. Many students do not want to let their peers or even their teachers to know they are going without food. In Harper Lee’s classic American novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout’s new teacher, Ms. Caroline, asks the students for a show of hands of those who go home for lunch and those who have brought their lunch. Every student did so, save for one, Walter Cunningham. When Ms. Caroline asks if he forgot his lunch, he hesitates. She asks again. A bit embarrassed, Walter answers: “Yeb’m.” Ms. Caroline offers him money so he can buy some lunch, but he declines her offer. Harper Lee writes: "Walter Cunningham was sitting there lying his head off. He didn't forget his lunch, he didn't have any. He had none today nor would he have any tomorrow or the next day.” The Cunningham’s were dirt poor and they were a proud. They did not want to take a hand-out, even if it meant they went hungry. There are still far too many “Walter Cunningham’s” in our schools.
As a pastor, I have been aware of hunger, or thought I was aware of it. I have helped collect food for local food pantries. I have served meals at soup kitchens. I have shared money with people looking for a meal. Yet, until I started working in a school, I had not come face-to-face with hunger on a daily basis. Teachers, support staff, kitchen crew, and school administrators know the face of Hunger. A growing number of students know its face as well. They see it each time they look in a mirror. Tragically, there are a growing number of students each year who see the image of Hunger reflected back to them.
There many organizations, community groups, and individuals, who having seen the increasing need in our schools, are working to find a solution. There are a few that I am aware of:
- Breakfast in the Classroom initiative, http://www.breakfastintheclassroom.org;
- No Kid Hungry: Share Our Strength program, http://www.nokidhungry.org,
- First Presbyterian Church in Sydney, Ohio - Munch Bunch Backpack Weekend Food Program for school children, http://sidneyfirstpres.org/outreachmission/munchbunchweekendmeals.html
(I would be interested in hearing about other programs in your schools and communities that are working to address the issue of hunger.)
So the next time you see the face of a student walking to school, or waiting at the bus stop, or studying in the public library, or playing on the play ground, or bagging your groceries, or passing you on the street, or in a picture posted on Facebook, I would invite you to look beyond the face - and see if you can see something more - the Face of Hunger. And if you do, tell me if you can catch a glimpse of one more thing - the face of Christ.
“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry...and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’” Matthew 25:44-45