With high rates of student hunger, many rely on free meals

Nov 20, 2017

Urban school children are facing a number of barriers to learning.  A new nation-wide study says one of those barriers is the high rate of students arriving at school hungry.  But as WBFO's senior reporter Eileen Buckley tells us, the Buffalo Public School District is serving thousands of meals to city kids.  

Buffalo Board of Education Child Nutrition Services, 1055 East Delavan Avenue, Buffalo, N.Y.
Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley

"I don't think it's unique to one school. I think it is something that we have definitely seen across the district,” said Bridget O'Brien Wood, director of Food Service Director for the Buffalo Public School District.  

The district provides free meals to all students through the federal "Community Eligibility” provision, a USDA program, because Buffalo has such a high rate of poverty. It is based on the number of students living in poverty.

“Our district has about 75% of the students and their families are below poverty, so we provide breakfast in the classroom, we provide ‘grab-and-go’ breakfast, we absolutely are trying to make it as accessible and appealing to the students as we possibly can,” explained O’Brien Wood. 

Bridget O'Brien Wood, director of Food Service Director for the Buffalo Public School District.
Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley

The Scholastic New York Teachers & Principal School Report finds that  71% of New York teachers report having students in their classrooms who are coming to school hungry.

Scholastic Education reached out to about 5,000 teachers and principals from Pre-K-through 12 across the U.S. 

We spoke with the organizations Chief Academic Officer Michael Haggen.

“I think this data that from the Teacher & Principal School Report helps to support what you all are doing in Buffalo – making sure that you’re breaking down some of those barriers so student achievement can go up and when we talked to educators, the feedback they gave us was 85-percent of them said that they are experiencing children in their classrooms facing barriers,” Haggen noted.

In the Buffalo School District more than 24,000 breakfasts and about 29,000 lunches are served each school day, free of charge.

“We know that there is a need there. We know that families are struggling in this area and so this program is very valuable and a help to families,” O’Brien Wood responded.   

Inside the Buffalo Board of Education Food Service Department.
Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley

The district has also added afterschool meals as well.  Approximately 7,000 meals are provided to students in after-school programs. 

“So those are afterschool program that are providing curriculum enrichment or extra-curricular activities for students and we do provide either a snack or a supper, sometimes it’s cold or hot, depending on the school administrator, but we are providing it all the schools that have a separate program

“We need to look at how we fund schools differently even within each district and what that looks like,” remarked Haggen. 

Haggen says other barriers to equity in education. He said 90-percent of students come from homes where there is a family or personal crisis and 80-percent are also in need of mental health services.

“Given the data that we received, we looked at all poverty levels – from low poverty to high poverty.  It can be from being in split homes to whatever their having to coming to school hungry and so that data is just alarming that this is where children school before they begin the learning process,” Haggen described.

Providing free meals to city school students is a chance to lift at least one barrier to ‘equity in education’.

“It’s helping them learn better, so hopefully we are getting this generation to do better academically and have more success at school by providing them with that nourishment that they need,” O’Brien Wood replied.