Food For Thought

Food disparity impacts thousands of families in Northern Virginia and across the country, leaving many children from diverse economics and ethnic backgrounds at a disadvantage in school.

February 13, 2019


Each day, over 180,000 students make their morning trek to a Fairfax County public school for their seven-hour school day. For many families, their daily routine is marked by after-school practices, homework sessions, and carpool, but getting a decent meal is rarely a concern. For the almost 24,000 teenagers in Fairfax County who are food insecure, however, every day is a countdown to mealtime.

What is food insecurity?

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the term food insecurity is defined as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.” A family or individual coping with food insecurity may have to reduce the quality of their meals, feed their children an unbalanced diet or skip meals completely so that their children may eat, according to the local nonprofit Food For Others Fairfax County. The organization works to minimize this disparity by helping families who are “unable to make ends meet and need to supplement their inadequate food supplies.”

Food insecurity affects an estimated 40 million Americans across all United States communities, including those in Vienna and near Madison.

There is no single, isolated cause; despite the relationship between food insecurity and income level, Feeding America notes that even individuals living above the poverty line can experience food insecurity. Housing costs, disabilities, social isolation and education level are all factors that can contribute to one’s access to adequate nutrition.

“It cuts across every economic status,” Assistant Principal Liz Calvert said. “Even if a family has not found access to food difficult, economic conditions that can change overnight, like the government shutdown, do impact families and their abilities to make ends meet.”

Long-Term Effects

An unbalanced diet can result in increased hospitalizations, iron deficiency and behavioral problems such as aggression, anxiety, depression and attention deficit disorder, according to the American Psychological Association. Additionally, while many experiencing food insecurity may appear underweight, food insecurity occurs disproportionately among families who present a high risk for obesity.

“A lot of times, we can determine if a patient is food insecure by what we call their body habitus,” Vienna Family Medicine practitioner Dr. Sandra Tandeciarz said. “Physical elements that you see in the exam can give you an idea; patients who are either obese or too thin may be affected [by food insecurity].”

The physical consequences of food insecurity can greatly affect education for children, who lack the nutrients necessary to sustain them throughout the school day. A proper diet plays an important role in cognition, and children from homes that do not have consistent access to food are more likely to receive lower test scores and repeat a grade level, according to Feeding America.

Living with Food Insecurity

In the 2017-2018 school year, 247 Madison students were on the free/reduced lunch program, but only 44.7% of Madison students are familiar with the term food insecurity.

“[Madison] has a really diverse population, including economically,” Calvert said. “There are groups of kids [at Madison] who are on free or reduced lunch who don’t have access to food outside of school.”

Calvert has seen how food insecurity negatively influences Madison students.

“Lack of access to food outside of school affects attendance,” Calvert said. “It affects the ability to pay attention. In many cases, it affects a child’s overall success in school.”

Kathy Coles, a current sixth grade teacher at Cunningham Park Elementary School in Vienna has also observed the consequences of food insecurity within her own classroom, and estimates that about one-third of the students at Cunningham Park are affected by some level of food insecurity.

“Food insecurity ends up showing up in all sorts of ways within the classroom,” Coles said. “Kids are tired, often because they have not eaten enough. They are just not quite feeling themselves. Sometimes they go down to the clinic, which means class time is lost. Because they’re hungry, they’re not listening; all of this impacts their education.”

Many of the families experiencing food insecurity source the majority of their groceries from the dollar store, 7-Eleven or CVS and severely lack fresh fruits and vegetables, Coles also explained. Some of her students and their families do not even have consistent access to transportation to get to the store. Because of these factors, Coles is making a conscious effort to alleviate some of the effects of food insecurity on her students.

In addition to providing snacks during the school day for those lacking adequate nutrition, Coles initiated a community garden at Cunningham Park about three years ago. What started as an experiment blossomed into a popular school and community interest after Coles showed students vegetables from the garden.

“The kids were fascinated by the fact that I was bringing them fresh vegetables,” Coles said. “We have a gardening committee, and kids and families are always welcome to come. They’re in there digging in that dirt and watching things grow. They’re excited about it and then they try it.”

The essential components of an elementary-school-aged child’s diet are protein, fruits, vegetables, grains and essential minerals. Protein is critical for the building and repairing of tissues and bones. Grains and other carbohydrates provide energy.  

“Dairy also provides protein, and fruits and vegetables add vitamins and minerals,” Dr. Tandeciarz said.

Families in a position of food insecurity may struggle to include essential dietary elements in their meals. In the Northern Virginia area, fruits and vegetables are most commonly omitted from the diets of children lacking access to adequate nutrition because of the higher costs of fresh produce, Tandeciarz explained. On average, healthier and perishable foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, cost nearly twice as much per serving when compared to unhealthy packaged foods, according to a study by Drexel University.

“There are a lot of minerals and vitamins that you get specifically through fruits and vegetables that you won’t necessarily get through other foods unless they’re supplemented,” Tandeciarz said. “Kids basically end up having too much of one thing and not a balance. And when they have too much of one thing, it tends to be foods that have a lot of fat, a lot of salt and not as many vitamins and minerals. So you’re really overcompensating on one side and not providing a balance of what you need.”

Feeding Communities

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the current government-run nutrition assistance program, helping low-income families and individuals meet their food-related needs. SNAP states that for each individual on the program, the average monthly benefit is $125.07. Yet the New Food Economy Organization estimates that it costs $143 per week to feed the average teenager. This leaves a tremendous hunger gap that needs to be addressed. Although this issue may be global, change can begin on a local level.

In addition to redistributing usable food from Vienna grocery stores and food establishments to those in need, Food For Others organizes food drives to collect non-perishable foods for donation.

Efforts to address food insecurity in the community can also be seen right here at Madison. Assistant Principal Calvert founded a food pantry program at Madison after seeing how a lack of regular access to food reduces student performance and success at school.

“There were several other high schools in the country which had started food pantries previously,” Calvert said. “We [Calvert, PTSA President and parent volunteer] went over to Oakton High School to find out how they did outreach, identified kids, received donations for their food pantry. They had put together a handbook that we adapted to provide nutritional support for our kids.”

This article was originally published in the Jan. 30 edition of The Hawk Talk.

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