Hungry minds are critically important as the school year picks up speed. Hungry stomachs, on the other hand, are a big distraction.
Having taught in elementary and secondary schools for one-third of my career, I remember the eager beginnings and anticipation that kids had for learning, sports, socializing and the structure that was a relief from a sometimes-chaotic summer.
For the most part, the students I taught were from middle- and upper-middle-class families. They didn’t come to school without having eaten breakfast or without a plan for lunch. Their families did not struggle to put food on the table.
However, my colleagues who remain in the educational field are seeing an ever-increasing number of children whose eagerness to learn is overcome by the growl of their empty stomachs.
Help with meals
Minnesota is experiencing an increase in the number of children who are living in poverty. In 2010 more than 300,000 children received free and reduced-price lunch because they were living in families whose incomes were insufficient to provide three meals each day for their children. Thankfully, this school-based food support program provides lunch and sometimes even breakfast.
Yes, our kids our resilient. Every day we see them thriving despite the shadow of poverty, joblessness and forced mobility that can tear families apart. But our children shouldn’t have to see their childhoods cut short because the family and community stressors of poverty deprive them of a more carefree life as a child.
So many things are at stake for our kids and for the future of our communities. If we believe that people have the right to participate in this society and the economy, we need to ensure that our kids have the tools they need to be successful in school.
However, we can’t separate our kids from the adults in their lives in terms of trying to end poverty. Unfortunately, we are sometimes tempted to just focus on the children because kids are a soft spot, an easier political sell.
But what about the parents? We can hardly fund educational and social services for our kids while rejecting the notion that their parents’ health and well-being are critical to the health and well-being of the children. We can hardly afford to treat children as an “orphan” of the educational system unconnected to the social and economic factors affecting their whole family.
In years past there have been attempts to singly focus our attention on children. We have promoted campaigns like the “Blest Be the Children” or “Ready 4 K,” both great efforts promoting the health and well-being of our children. Obviously, we need to do whatever we can to uphold the dignity of children and to provide for their success.
But leaving the parents out of the solution is a mistake. Surely the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality isn’t a successful strategy, especially in this economy. Adults need support that encourages them as well as their children.
Success for our children means helping to pave the way for the adults in their lives. This includes rejecting the segmentation of our society based on a false “age-worthiness” criterion for public/private investment, and returning to family-centered policies that revitalize our communities.
Kathy Tomlin is director of the Office for Social Justice of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Category: Faith and Justice