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Too hungry to learn

School Funding | 07/14/2015

Amber England
Executive Director

Amber England is Executive Director of Stand for Children Oklahoma.

I still remember the color of my lunch ticket from elementary school. It looked different than most of the other kids’ tickets because mine was for students in the free/reduced school food assistance program. It had to be a different color so the cafeteria workers knew to charge me only 10 cents for my lunch tray instead of the full price.

I’ve never discussed this with my mom, but I’m sure she didn’t like the fact that my sister and I – and every other kid dependent on this program – were singled out and labeled as poor every day. My mom didn’t have any other choice. She desperately needed the relief to make sure her children had enough food in their bellies to be able to learn while she worked and went to college to lift our family out of poverty.

In the years since I was in elementary school, I know the system has improved and kids are no longer labeled the way my sister and I were; I’m so thankful for that because there is such a stigma attached to people who receive public assistance to help feed their families.

We should do everything we can to remove the stigma associated with these programs, and we should have an important conversation about why these food assistance initiatives are critical for ensuring students aren’t too hungry to learn.

In Oklahoma, more than 60 percent of kids—three out of every five—depend on food assistance initiatives like my sister and I did. These programs continue into the summer months because being hungry doesn’t begin and end with the school calendar. They are essential for having engaged, healthy learners who can graduate high school and go on to get a college education.

I bet every one of us can name five kids we know and love in Oklahoma. And of those five, three of them need access to food assistance programs for their brains to develop properly and learn in school. In Oklahoma City and Tulsa—our states largest school districts – more than 90 percent of kids are helped by these feeding initiatives. That’s 9 out of every 10 kids!

We must build awareness for the importance of these programs because research consistently shows kids who are hungry at school:

  • Score lower on intelligence tests,
  • Are more likely to repeat a grade,
  • Have lower math and general achievement test scores, and
  • Struggle to read.

As a state, we’ve passed some pretty important laws to raise student achievement and ensure our kids graduate high school prepared for college and careers. Ultimately, these laws also ensure Oklahoma businesses have the workforce they need to make strong profits and keep our economic engine running. These laws don’t work when kids show up to school hungry. These initiatives worked for my family. My mom utilized public assistance for a short period of time to keep her daughters fed and healthy, became the first in our family to graduate from college and paved the way for my sister and I to do the same.

The goal should be that no child in this state has to rely on a public food assistance program– and education is the key to making that happen. Doing everything in our power to help families from going hungry and giving them the support they need for their children to show up to school ready to learn must be a priority for all Oklahomans.

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