An end to hunger: How healthy food plays a significant role in school turnarounds

When one Grand Rapids principal saw a student taking scraps from a lunchroom dumpster, she knew the school needed to address the hunger that so many of their children faced. Working with Kids Food Basket, her school began providing sack suppers for its students - and the change that followed has been transformative.
When MaryAnn Prisichenko saw a student picking food out of the trash in the lunchroom at Grand Rapid’s Straight Elementary School (now Sibley Elementary School), her plans for raising student achievement at the low-performing school needed some rethinking.

Dealing with technology upgrades and new textbooks seemed less pressing after she saw the face of hunger in a young girl who was taking home scraps from the lunchroom dumpster for her and her family to eat.

“She was hungry. All she thought about was the food she didn’t have at home,” says Prisichenko, who was principal at Straight/Sibley for seven years. “I started realizing how many of the kids were from food insecure homes.”

That was more than 10 years ago, but Prisichenko remembers it vividly. She contacted a program called Kids Food Basket, a Grand Rapids-based child hunger relief agency, to provide sack suppers every afternoon for the children to bring home in the evenings when there were no school meals to provide nourishment.

Prisichenko believes that the Sack Suppers program contributed largely to the school’s turnaround from the lowest performing building in Grand Rapids Public Schools to being in the top quartile. Improvements were constant over a decade, and student attendance became exceptional. The suppers were distributed every day school was in session – and they still are today.

Volunteers prepare the bag dinners for kids to take home.Kids Food Basket has grown from serving two high-need schools in Grand Rapids to serving 32 schools in Kent County, three in Muskegon, and two in Holland, specifically targeting schools with 80 percent or more children at or below the poverty level.

Not eating the right foods or enough food on a regular basis clearly has physical consequences. Hunger and malnutrition can affect healthy growth when a child’s body does not have the fuel it needs.

Food insecure children are 31 percent more likely to be hospitalized. Total health costs for children who are obese are more than 200 percent higher than an average child’s health costs. Because low-nutrient food is cheap and readily available, child food insecurity is associated with the risk of obesity.

Also, food insecurity and the physical and mental stresses of poverty can cause poor school performance, more sick days, and low self-esteem. And if the problem of poor nutrition is invasive enough within a school, it has the potential to impact overall school performance. Conversely, good food can be a catalyst for school turnaround.

Bridget Clark Whitney, executive director of Kids Food Basket, has seen the Sack Suppers program contribute to dramatic turnaround in academic achievement.

The lifecycle of a bagged dinner.Along with Sibley, Muskegon Heights School District has also seen change for the positive. About four years ago, Clark Whitney’s interest in the district peaked because it had the highest dropout rate of any school system in the state.

More than three years ago, Kids Food Basket began providing Sack Suppers at one district school and then added Edgewood Elementary (now Dr. Martin Luther King Academy) in 2013.

“It was a school with really tremendous needs, very high poverty levels,” Clark Whitney recalls. At the end of the academic year, Clark Whitney says that the principal, Shawn Hurt, called her to report a 21 percent increase in MEAP scores, which he largely attributed to Kids Food Basket.

“When kids are eating healthy and know they have a meal coming, they feel more positive about themselves,” Hurt says of the increase. “Consequently, that has an impact on academic performance.”

He’s relieved that the second to sixth graders in his care no longer need to worry about what they’re going to eat until the next day’s school breakfast is available. They have a meal to take home or to afterschool tutoring, as well as energy to complete their homework and come to school the next day, ready to learn.

“If their parents are still at work, they have something to take home to take care of hunger themselves,” says Alena Zachery-Ross, superintendent of Muskegon Heights Public School Academy System, the first public charter school district in the United States.

Many students go home to an empty house or older siblings. With Sack Suppers, they don’t have to wonder what to eat.

Zachery-Ross says that Muskegon Heights schools were underachieving when she came on board with Mosaica Education to reopen the schools as a charter. Kids Food Basket helped with the turnaround.  

“We saw double digit gains on the last MEAP test. Also, on internal exams, with the Sack Suppers being implemented, we are seeing gains of one and a half up to two years of growth per student.”

Gains of one year are normally expected. “We’ve seen the academic impact,” says Zachery-Ross.

She says other efforts have contributed to the turnaround, but that Kids Food Basket has an “internal impact” on the children.  

Clark Whitney says she’s heard that from school leaders time and time again: school is a place to be safe and have basic needs cared for; the Sack Suppers allow kids to feel safe and secure about having that take-home meal every weeknight.

By eliminating one of the critical barriers – food – that low-income kids face in achieving success, they can learn and play and just be kids. It makes them want to come to school (chronic absenteeism has decreased in schools receiving Sack Suppers), and parents are relieved and thankful (student mobility is lower because families want to stay put).

Prisichenko says that the impact on a child feeling safe, with basic needs being cared for, cannot be understated. “Imagine the constant fret of safety, security and nutrition,” says Prisichenko. “You can’t perform well with those on your mind.”

In fact, teachers and administrators have seen first hand how students act when they are hungry: lethargic, tired, and irritable.  

But trusting that a healthy meal makes it into a child’s backpack every afternoon can have the opposite effect their ability to learn and achieve. And, the students see the value in the Sack Suppers.

“Students are very vocal that they count on meals at school and on the Sack Suppers,” says Zachery-Ross, who has witnessed students asking for a Sack Supper for a sibling when there is a need. “This is a place where they’re not ashamed to ask for help.”

This story is part of a series of solutions-focused stories and profiles about the programs and people that are positively impacting the lives of Michigan kids. The series is produced by Michigan Nightlight and is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read other stories in this series here.

Photography by Adam Bird
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.