Hunger in children influences their ability to learn in school, and in Colorado - and Summit County - the problem seems to be getting worse.
According to teachers recently surveyed throughout the state by the Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry campaign, childhood hunger not only remains a serious issue, but the problem is growing: 51 percent said it's getting worse, while 53 percent noted that "a lot" or "most" of their students rely on school meals as their primary source of nutrition. Three out of five teachers surveyed nationally said they have students who regularly come to school hungry.
"I have had students who have come to school with lunch the previous day having been their last meal," said Julie Fahey, principal and former teacher at Queen Palmer Elementary in Colorado Springs. "Hungry students simply can't focus and learn."
Overwhelmingly, teachers say students have trouble learning when they're focused on their empty stomachs. Hungry students, they say, lack concentration and struggle with poor academic performance, behavior problems and health issues.
School meals play an important role in making sure that, even in tough times, kids still get the healthy food they need. Nine out of 10 teachers surveyed agree that school breakfast is especially important for academic achievement, crediting it with increased concentration, better academic performance and better behaviors in the classroom. Four out of five teachers said breakfast prevents head and stomachaches, and students who eat it are less likely to be tardy or absent.
Yet too many eligible kids are missing out on this critical meal. According to the Colorado Department of Education, of the more than 217,000 low-income students in Colorado who ate free or reduced-price lunch a day last school year, only 87,000 participated in the School Breakfast Program.
Summit County doesn't seem to be immune to the issue. In Summit School District, the number of students receiving free or reduced lunch rose from 12.9 percent of the district's enrollment in 2000 to 34 percent in 2011. That percentage grew more than 10 percent in the past five years.
"Especially in the last couple of years, we've seen a lot more families who are applying for free and reduced lunch," said Dianna Hulbert, Silverthorne Elementary principal. At her school, about 64 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch; when she started seven years ago, it was roughly 52 percent.
During first year at Silverthorne, Hulbert said it became evident that lunch was the main meal many kids were getting.
"(Hunger) adds to the kids' anxiety, and their ability to focus," she said. "If your basic needs aren't met - food, clothing and shelter - then you're pretty much in survival mode."
Silverthorne's adoption of the breakfast program five years ago, "had a huge impact," Hulbert said. "And we really noticed an increase in kids' attention in the morning, and just their ability to focus."
On average, 25 percent of Summit School District students qualified for a free breakfast eat it, while 17 percent of students eligible for the reduced version participate, according to Joel Hauswirth, the district's nutrition service director. Sixty-two percent of those eligible for free lunch take part in the program, while 59 percent of those qualified for the reduced version do, he said.
Hauswirth said he's not surprised by the No Child Hungry campaign's report, based on his observations in Summit and his previous district in the Denver Metro area.
"I say that because we have students who do not miss a meal because (in my opinion) they otherwise will not eat at all or will eat a meal of poor nutritional quality," Hauswirth said. "We encourage students/parents in need to apply for the free/reduced program, however for a variety of reasons many are reluctant to do so."
Those reasons could include children having particular likes and dislikes in meals, food allergies and intolerances, and for some, embarrassment. But, at Summit District, there's no way other students would know if a child was free, reduced or paid. Hauswirth is currently working to send out information about the free and reduced programs via email (for privacy reasons) to get more eligible families enrolled.
In the past, Hulbert noticed that students who rely on school meals for regular nourishment tend to become anxious as the calendar rolled closer to big school vacations, since they weren't sure where their meals will come from.
"For a lot of our families, there are food banks available, but sometimes access is difficult," she said. For example, mothers without cars might find themselves having to take numerous busses to the food bank, with crying children in tow.
In response, Silverthorne Elementary now places food boxes around the county to collect for children going into the breaks (it's not really hard collecting enough food, but cloth bags to send it home in, Hulbert said). The principal is currently trying to make that a reality for Saturdays and Sundays as well.
"My next dream is that we can start sending food home on the weekends," she said.