Not long after the start of the school year, Monique Sanders, a teacher at Nathan Hale Elementary School in Manchester, Conn., realized many of her students were going to bed hungry.
“It was very bad. I had parents calling me several times a week, asking did I know of any other way that they could get food, because they had already gone to a food pantry,” Sanders says. “The food pantry only allows you to go twice per month, so if you are running low on your food stamps or you didn’t get what you needed and you’re not able to feed your family, that’s very stressful.”
In class, says Sanders, that meant stressed out kids with stomach aches, unable to concentrate, and lots of acting out.
“They have anger issues,” she says. “They don’t know what’s really going on sometimes at home, so that comes into the school.”
So last February, Nathan Hale Elementary began a dinner program for children enrolled in after school activities. Most evenings, Sanders shepherds a few dozen children, ages 6 through 11, from the old renovated fire station that houses the after-school program, to the school cafeteria across the street.
On tonight’s menu: chicken alfredo with mixed vegetables.
More and more families in financial stress are relying on schools to feed their children breakfast, lunch and now, dinner. In the last few years a federally subsidized school dinner program has spread from six to all 50 states.
Kathleen Fiengo has worked in school cafeterias for 25 years. Preparing supper for students is a first for her.
“The kids are so grateful. They are so polite. And they absolutely love it,” Fiengo, who now works at Nathan Hale Elementary, says.
Thirty-year-old Jose Rodriguez says he’s thankful knowing his daughter, Faith, has had a good dinner.
“She doesn’t come home hungry,” Rodriguez says. “It does help, because her mom works late shifts. I just recently lost my job. I was an operations and sales manager for a company that details and refurbishes private aircraft.”
Rodriguez and his wife are struggling to pay their $1,300 monthly rent, plus the car, utilities and gas. He says whatever’s left is for food.
“I still feed [my kids], but it does make it harder,” Rodriguez says. “The less money in your pocket, less money you have for food and everything.”
Still, some parents don’t like the idea of school feeding their kids dinner. Rhonda Bolling says that’s a parent’s responsibility.
“I was really shocked when they said that, because I’m like, ‘Dinner?'” Bolling says. She doesn’t allow her daughter, a first grader, to stay for dinner after school.
“I pick up my daughter around 5, 5:15 because she comes home to have dinner with me,” Bolling says.
But she says it’s a crunch for some parents. “Some people have a bunch of kids, they’re not working,” she says. “They’re depending on the system.”
It’s a view echoed on talk radio. Rush Limbaugh has denounced school dinners as the latest manifestation of the nanny state.
“I am stunned here, because if we’re going to feed kids supper at school…why go home? Just raise them all 24/7 at the school. All they do at home is sleep!” Limbaugh said recently on his program.
But school administrators, like Kate England, the principal at Nathan Hale, say schools wouldn’t have to provide dinner if kids didn’t need it.
“I say how can you argue with feeding a child who’s hungry?” England says. She blames the economy for leaving so many parents jobless or with only part time work.
“There are people with college degrees working at Starbucks right now,” England says.
During the worst part of Manchester’s economic downturn, the unemployment rate topped 9 percent. It’s fallen in the last few months, but school officials here say families are still hurting. They expect the number of kids in the dinner program to grow.
Organizations that have studied the impact the recession has had on child hunger say the national figures are alarming. From 2007 to 2010, the number of households that were “food insecure” jumped from 36 million to 49 million.
“It’s those kinds of statistics that the public needs to be aware of, because that’s the only way you’re going to get any focus on trying to change budget priorities [in Congress],” says Joe Courtney, a democratic congressman from Connecticut.
Courtney represents the southeastern part of the state. His district has been hit hard by job losses and rising levels of poverty.
“And this is not urban poverty,” Courtney says. “It’s rural and small town [poverty]. And what we’ve seen during the downturn is an uptick in terms of food banks in suburban communities, so you can really see the ripple effect of income loss.”
Courtney says in one school district he visited, for example, the number of kids in the dinner program has tripled since November, from 80 to 250. So even if Connecticut’s economic picture continues to improve, the state is still counting on more federal aid to expand the school dinner program.