Hungry Students

The B.Ed programme teaches those enrolled many things. From conflict resolution, to cross-curricular lesson planning. The realities of teaching aren’t always present in university lessons, however, and some things get left off the syllabus due to a lack of time.

By rights, the practicum period is when we as erstwhile student teachers get to experience the realities of teaching in all that it encompasses. I was one of the luckier ones. The years I had taught overseas had prepared me for situations I knew my university classes hadn’t covered. I had less trepidation for my ability to manage a class, and was reasonably confident in my pedagogy going into my practicum periods.

(Having self-confidence in my ability to teach some of the subjects effectively was another matter)

Even so, there was an incident during my second practicum that caught me off-guard, mostly because there wasn’t an obvious solution and I hadn’t encountered it in Korea.

Now it’s not uncommon to have students cry in class. Tears spring forth and are then quickly dried in a matter of minutes. Sometimes student come into class crying over something that had happened over recess. Sometimes students cry when an errant elbow pokes an eye during collaborative poster-making. Emotions run high when you are in a portable classroom with the same group of people every day. Crying happens.

On one occasion, a student broke into tears because they had been called “poor” and was needled for not bringing any food to school. They were a student who was part of the school’s breakfast club each morning, as were many of the others. Many of the students in the school came from low socio-economic backgrounds, and the volunteers in the breakfast club worked hard to accommodate them.

The student who was hunkered at their table, sobbing into the crook of their elbow had it worse than most of the others. There were other complications and reasons for not having food. When the rest of the class went to another classroom to have their lunch, I told the crying student they could stay behind if they wanted. I needed to take stock of the situation, and make sure I had all the details correct. For safety reasons, I couldn’t just give some of my lunch to the student, but unfortunately there wasn’t any food within our classroom we could give out, either.

In the end, this student was told to go to the office, where leftovers from the breakfast club were collected. They and another student would pick up their food from the office on a near-daily basis, so that they would have something to eat.

Food insecurity is something I didn’t have to deal with in Korea. Not because my students in Korea were better off financially. They weren’t. By the time I was teaching in a public middle school, the Seoul government was grappling with subsidizing school lunches for students. Yes, it came at a price, and many native English teachers had their positions cut due to budget shortfalls. The quality of food from school to school varied, depending on the capabilities of the kitchen staff. Yet in the end, the students had access to at least one hot meal a day, and the pangs of mid-day hunger would be one less distraction to deal with in class.

Food insecurity in Canada is generally thought a problem in the northern territories, and not something considered in the richer southern cities. Perhaps it is something that should be considered, because one in five children in Ottawa lives in poverty. That’s a staggering statistic for the National Capital Region of Canada (a G7 country, I might add).

Health issues aside, student hunger affects participation in class activities and is well-documented. Students are less able to focus, and find themselves more easily distracted. They may be more irritable. They may even bully other students into giving them portions of their own lunches, so they might have something to eat (and that kind of intimidation plays out in other aspects of school relationships).

Teachers do try and mitigate this, even if they aren’t obliged to reach into their wallets and feed their students. Some teachers keep non-perishable food items in their rooms in case someone forgets their lunch, or wasn’t provided with one. Last year, during my first practicum, a teacher came into the staff room angry that her locker of food had been broken into and cleared completely out. Students had eaten everything in a brief moment they weren’t supervised.

Is it a teacher’s responsibility to provide food for the students in their class? Professionally, it isn’t. The moral and ethical implications can be debated, but in any case, such actions would only be a band aid solution to the problem. A teacher can’t keep a stock of fresh food in a classroom for such emergencies, so any food provided would have minimal nutritional benefits. The student would, more likely than not, return to a home, at the end of the day, where food is scarce.

Without the existence of breakfast club programmes, students would have one less opportunity to eat a healthy meal. This makes the alleged clawbacks to the TDSB’s subsidized student food programmes all the more troubling. The health and well-being of students shouldn’t bear the brunt of a city’s efforts to save money. As educators, we are tasked with feeding students’ minds, but nourishment for their bodies is just as important.

One in five youth living in poverty in Ottawa is a statistic that shouldn’t sit well with anyone. Access to food is a basic human right, and having limited access to it results in long-term consequences for a developing individual. Expanded subsidized meal options can offer temporary relief at schools, but ensuring food security at home would be a more expansive solution.