Teachers say weekend food aids student behavior, academics
By BRITTANY NUNN September 24, 2012
Joe Barton leaned forward to emphasize a point about the vicious cycle of poverty and its key side effect, hunger.
“You cannot ask a child who is starving — you cannot ask a human being, doesn’t even have to be a child — you cannot ask a human being who is in a literal state of survival to be at their best,” said Barton, an Amarillo licensed professional counselor.
People lacking one or more of the basic components of survival — food, shelter or clothing — become preoccupied with how they can attain it, and quickly, he said. And that preoccupation makes it difficult to succeed in areas such as analytical thinking, long-term planning and creativity, Barton said.
That’s a problem the Snack Pak 4 Kids program began targeting two years ago, providing sacks of food for local at-risk students every weekend. A recent survey of almost 500 Amarillo Independent School District teachers in 32 schools indicates the program is working, officials said.
Overwhelming majorities of respondents to the survey observed Snack Pak students improving in a wide range of categories, ranging from behavior to performance.
“We’ve had a great success,” said Brandy Self, the principal at Glenwood Elementary School. “Kids would come to us on Monday tired, grouchy, so hungry sometimes, and it took a little while to get them to eat, to get them back on track.”
More than three-fourths of teachers said Snack Pak students beefed up their academic performance and concentration.
“These numbers … validate what we’ve been saying all along: ‘On an empty stomach, you can’t learn anything,’” said Dyron Howell, the founder of Snack Pak 4 Kids in Amarillo.
Barton is not surprised.
“You give kids proper nutrition, and they’re absolutely going to perform better in school,” he said.
The survey is not scientific, said Barton, who has a master’s degree in psychology and is pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology. But it echoes what researchers already have learned about nutrition and human development.
“While we don’t have proof that this is causative — we don’t have scientific proof that the Snack Pak 4 Kids program is the reason for the improvement the teachers are seeing — what we do have is some really strong evidence, some support that that may be the case,” he said.
It’s not just about academics. Almost three-fourths of respondents said Snack Pak students’ behavior also improved. Good nutrition not only meets physical needs, it provides emotional security, Barton said.
“When it comes to human development, one of the best things that you can give children is predictability,” Barton said.
Without that, children mentally cope in what Barton called “survival mode.” Immediate needs become the primary focus and higher thinking becomes almost impossible, he said.
Barton cited as an example someone going three days without water:
“If you say to me, ‘Well, Joe, I’ll give you 10 gallons of water once you can give me a clear concise, bright conversation about the intellectual and psychological underpinnings of thirst,’” Barton said with thick sarcasm. “I’m going to say, ‘I can’t do it.’ I’ve gone three days without water. All I can focus on is getting that water.”
That’s the kind of impact Howell said he began working to reverse when he discovered Amarillo lacked a weekend backpack program like those found elsewhere in Texas, such as Food 4 Kids in Dallas, Backpack Buddy in Houston and Food in Tummies in Austin.
So Howell began meeting with AISD principals to discuss hunger. Finally, he founded Snack Pak 4 Kids in Amarillo under Panhandle Community Services in summer 2010.
“We have great parents who are very hard-working, but these are tough economic times,” Self said. “A lot of our parents work multiple jobs and aren’t home on the weekends, so we knew we had some kiddos that were feeding themselves and younger siblings.”
A third of children in the Texas Panhandle live in food-insecure households, meaning the children don’t always have food to eat at home and therefore rely primarily on food they eat at school, according to Feeding America, a hunger-relief charity based in Chicago.
That can create a cycle that is self-
perpetuating, Barton said.
“One of the most damaging things I see as a professional counselor is that they actually develop a sense that they’re not worth much,” he said. “That’s a very difficult thing to overcome for somebody who firmly believes that.”
But the problem is not irreversible, he said.
“People have to do something,” Barton said. “It’s not fixed with money. It’s not fixed with good thoughts. It’s fixed with people doing something.”
How to help
Several opportunities exist for getting involved Snak Pak 4 Kids. For more information, contact Panhandle Community Services at 806-342-6190 or contact Dyron Howell at email@example.com.
■ Sponsor a student for $133 a year or adopt a school
■ Volunteer to help fill Snack Paks
■ Organize a peanut butter or Pop Tart drive in your community
■ Follow Snack Pak 4 Kids on Facebook