Reaching Hungry Teens
It’s a Wednesday evening and school is just letting out at South St. Paul Secondary (SSPS). A dozen or so long tables stacked with food and volunteers waited for students and their families to take home. Fast forward 45 minutes and each item had almost entirely disappeared.
This will be a familiar site for students at SSPS and two other high schools in Minnesota. For the first time, Second Harvest Heartland’s Food + You program is expanding to reach high school students!
SSPS is one of the first participating high schools in the 2017/18 academic year. Connie Garling-Squire, South St. Paul school district’s Director of Early Learning and Equity, worked with Second Harvest Heartland last year as well, in the Lincoln and Kaposia elementary schools. Food + You is a multi-dimensional pilot program offering direct food distributions, support for accessing existing federal nutrition programs and connections to broader community resources.
“Having worked with those two elementary buildings for that past year, it was breaking our hearts to watch fifth grade families moving into sixth grade and knowing that that support wouldn’t be there,” Connie said. “We had really great responses and heartfelt stories about what a difference it made. We touch quite a lot of people. And for that support to just stop when you turn 12 didn’t make sense.”
The barriers for younger students differ from those of older students, creating a unique set of challenges and factors to consider when starting a hunger relief program aimed at helping teens. To help explain some of those barriers and how the Food + You program is addressing them at SSPS, we spoke to some of the program and school staff. Julie Anderson, a science and engineering teacher at SSPS, opted on her own accord to volunteer to help run the second Food + You distribution. In her classroom, she sees how her 9-12 grade students navigate tough times at home while still trying to learn about science.
“Hunger can manifest itself a bunch of different ways,” Julie said. “It also shows up with other problems – trauma, homelessness and high mobility, so it’s hard to attribute everything to hunger. What I do see with kids who are struggling … is that some are tired (they close their eyes in the school’s safe space), some are on edge, some are distracted. You know how it is to struggle as an adult when life is hard and you’re hungry. Imagine having new hormones mixed in. Learning is really hard when your basic needs aren’t being met.”
Anna Ferris, School and Community Program Coordinator at Second Harvest Heartland, says older kids can sometimes be expected to handle learning barriers on their own. “Younger students’ parents often help them overcome these barriers in accessing resources,” Anna said, “while high school students are more likely to be independent and may not have the same amount of parental support.”
And it shows up if students don’t have enough food at home. SSPS Principal Chuck Ochocki sees this in the cafeteria regularly throughout the academic year. “We have a 45 percent free and reduced [lunch population], but I would tell you it’s higher than that. You could stand outside the cafeteria and watch students go to the vending machine and not get a hot meal. It tells you something else is going on,” Chuck said. Small vending machine items only cost a dollar, and students can pay with cash. For hot lunches (Chuck added there’s much more variety and the food is much higher quality than one may remember from their own school days!), students have to use a PIN, which Chuck said would be a deterrent without reliable funds in their lunch account.
Chuck was one of the most active volunteers at both the September and October SSPS Food + You distributions. And the response he saw from families made a large impact on him. “I had a mom burst into tears when we handed her strawberries. She said ‘I can’t remember the last time we had fresh strawberries,’” Chuck told us. “All of the sudden, it was like, how many more families are like this, to cry about strawberries.” He said it made him grateful for what he has at home and reinforced what he already knew about the need at his school.
Even aside from the personal anecdotes Chuck and Connie have heard from students and their families so far, the need for this food, which included staple shelf-stable foods like beans, Masa flour and cereal, as well as fresh produce, is evident if only for how quickly the food disappeared.
Learn more about Food + You and how Second Harvest Heartland is helping create more access to food for teens and their families.