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'It's hard to focus': Schools say US kids are hungry

This picture shows students during lunch break in the cafeteria at V. H. Lassen Academy of Science and Nutrition in Phoenix, USA on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023. (Photo by AP)

America's schools have reported that kids are hungry amid growing concerns about the detrimental impact of malnutrition on children's learning as the cost-of-living crisis mounts added pressure on US families. 

The US media reported on Saturday that soaring food prices in the United States were adding to the pressure on families who are seeing reductions in multiple kinds of financial assistance. One federal program that ends this month had given nearly 30 million Americans extra food stamps during the pandemic.

At the same time, debts for unpaid school meals have been rising, indicating a rising level of poverty and raising questions about how schools can feed hungry kids without having a federal budget for it.

Poor kids in schools are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, as before the pandemic, but qualifying for those benefits requires applications that haven’t been necessary for several years.

“Programs that provide direct food assistance are hugely critical and we are going to see the effects of not having them over the next couple of months,” said Megan Curran, policy director for Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy.

In the last academic year, with nearly all schools back operating in person, the number of school meals served to students jumped dramatically, and was slightly higher than pre-pandemic levels, according to a report Thursday from the Food Research & Action Center. Already, it said, states now are reporting drops in the number of meals served.

More than 34 million people, including 9 million children, in the United States are food insecure, according to the US Department of Agriculture, meaning they lack consistent access to enough food for every person in their family to be healthy.

Children in such households are more likely to struggle academically and repeat grade levels, among other challenges, according to researchers.

It's hard to focus in class when I'm hungry. Food helps me pay attention to what I'm learning,” said fourth-grader Fabian Aguirre,10.

At his school, V. H. Lassen Academy of Science and Nutrition, all students come from poor families living in low-income communities and are eligible to receive free meals.

However, it can be difficult for parents to ask for the help they need, said Jillien Meier, director of No Kid Hungry. Immigrant parents, she said, might also avoid filling out forms requesting free or reduced-price meals out of concern it could bring unwanted attention if they are in the US illegally.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the US Congress had temporarily approved universal school meals, free to all American pupils.  However, after the government's measures to curb the pandemic paid off, the free meal was cut last fall. When the free meals for all came to an end, “families were left scrambling and confused," National PTA President Anna King said. Impoverished families receiving free food for their children weren't prepared for the paperwork after two years without it. Many families with younger kids had never filled out forms to receive free school meals.

In the meantime, chief US economists predict the chances that the  US economy falls into a recession is high, making it a difficult year for many Americans already struggling with poverty.

Ex-treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin said last October that the US is in recession and will remain so for at least two years.

"I think you are going to see inflation in the US begin to come under control, it will probably be a two-year period," he said.

Nouriel Roubini, who accurately predicted the housing bubble burst in 2008, was quoted by US media as saying the US economy was in a "sharp slowdown".

"The recession is going to be long, protracted, severe, and associated with financial distress across the board," warned the well-known economist. 

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