Hunger in the classroom

When I used to teach writing in Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Special Education Teacher Assistant (SETA) program*, on our first day of classes I would tell my students that I possessed nearly none of their ability to infer the emotional or psychological state of people around them. “Unless you are crying or bleeding, I have no idea that any of you are in trouble – that is, unless you explain that to me in sentences.”

Seeing traces of hurt, neglect, or psychological distress in people was normally beyond me – without verbal statements from them or from people who were helping them. Discerning what was going on with non-neurotypical learners in a K-12 classroom would have been an impossible riddle to me.

Most of my SETA students, though, had a double gift – of seeing “inside of people,” and of knowing how to communicate what they were seeing *to* these people. Over the course of many years, my students helped me to see and to hear a bit better. But I am still mostly blind and deaf.

In the last several months I have been humbled and indeed embarrassed by how insensible I still am. I simply did not know – it never would have occurred to me even to ask – how many of my students were hungry, chronically hungry.

From the Pacific Standard magazine:

Drawing on surveys conducted with over 167,000 students from 101 community colleges and 68 four-year colleges and universities, the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice—a non-profit research organization focused on higher education and social policies—has documented rates of basic needs insecurity on campuses across 20 states. Sara Goldrick-Rab, the Hope Center’s founder and the study’s lead author, says that, while the data might not be nationally representative, “there are numbers now.”

Food is the most pervasive concern. In the 30 days preceding the survey, 48 percent of responding students claimed to have experienced food insecurity, defined in the report as “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe food, or the ability to acquire such food in a socially acceptable manner.” Just over 50 percent of two-year college students and 44 percent of four-year college students “worried whether my food would run out before I got more money to buy more.” Around 30 percent for each group “was hungry but did not eat because there was not enough money for food.”

The vast majority of my students work one or more jobs to make ends meet – that I knew – but I never made the simple connection: What can students cut from their budgets, when they must? Food, of course.

* In composing this post I learned that the SETA program at Kwantlen is now called the Education Assistant program and that special education assistants are now described as education assistants. I imagine that the debate concerning this change in nomenclature might have been fraught.

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