Every year there are dozens of articles and letters to the editor about the violence plaguing our streets and our schools (just two: Hines, “Baltimore crime initiatives a good start, but do they go far enough?” from 2021, and “All of these people have died in school shootings since Columbine. Enough” from 2018.
Effective efforts to reduce violence in our schools must target the root causes, including food insecurity. Students that arrive at school hungry are not ready to learn, even if their schools have the best teachers, curriculum, or resources available.
Food insecurity is not the same as hunger, which we all experience; it refers to the lack of regular and consistent access to nutritious food. The stress of food insecurity is revealed through the child who knows they will soon be sitting in the school cafeteria at lunchtime with an empty lunchbox pretending to have food, or the student who knows they will have to try to borrow money from friends again to get food. It is the student hoarding food in their school locker for the weekend. It is worrying about whether there will be food at home for dinner tonight, or tomorrow night. It is knowing that school breaks during the year, including “snow days,” and summer vacation are the times when getting enough food can be really tough. Food insecurity also takes a tremendous toll on school staff, who witness hunger and food insecurity affecting their students every day.
The Maryland Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS)/Youth Tobacco Survey (YTS) is an assessment of the health and well-being of our middle and high school students. The survey measures behaviors including drug use, diet, sexual activity, and alcohol use, and also measures food insecurity. Unlike previous studies where food insecurity was reported by parents, students themselves were asked whether their families were worried that their food would run out, or if the food their family bought didn’t last they didn’t have money to buy more.
This survey found that 25% of middle school students and 28% of high school students in Maryland are food insecure.
The survey also found significant disparities in food insecurity rates by race/ethnicity. In addition, food insecure students are more likely to experience poor health outcomes, including asthma, obesity, and depression. In Baltimore County schools, over half of the students in middle schools who were food insecure had seriously considered suicide. Food insecure students are significantly more likely to have made a suicide plan, to not feel safe at school, to have been in physical fights at school, and had carried a weapon to school.
The root causes of violence and poor educational outcomes must be addressed from the beginning of life if we want to be effective at preventing the consequences we see every day in our community. If everyone had enough to eat, every day, Maryland would be transformed.
Could we start with that, in one of the wealthiest states in the nation? Surely we can use a fraction of the state’s $4.6 billion budget surplus to fully fund effective programs that already exist, but are all underfunded. With $38.6 million, we can reduce food insecurity for over 640,000 Marylanders through full funding for three programs: Summer SNAP for Children, increasing the minimum monthly SNAP benefit, and the Maryland Meals for Achievement universal free school breakfast program. Learn more about these strategies in our “Road Map to End Hunger in Maryland in 2022.” (Link to Road map)
For example, Maryland’s Summer SNAP for Children helps families access food during school breaks by providing a state and county funded supplement of $30 per child, per summer month that is automatically added to existing SNAP accounts. Governor Hogan recently announced an increase in funding for this critical program, which will allow for more than 60,000 children to benefit. While we welcome this news, more is needed: over 400,000 children are currently eligible for this support. With a total cost to fully fund the program of just $100 per child, per year – we need a total of $27.6 million in state funding for full funding. Towson University economists found that increasing funds for this SNAP supplement will “greatly benefit” the economy while reducing food insecurity, creating additional jobs, and increasing tax revenues. We know that it will also reduce violence in our schools, and we therefore urge immediate action by the Governor and legislators in Annapolis to fully fund this these programs.
Laurie Taylor-Mitchell and Tam Lynne Kelley
The writers are the President and Chair of Advocacy for the Student Support Network (www.studentsupportnetwork.org), a non-profit organization assisting students in poverty in Baltimore County Public Schools.