Before the holiday last week, Shelby Leatherman, a special-needs teacher at Meigs Intermediate School in rural southeastern Ohio, helped make a whole Thanksgiving meal for her class because she knew “most of the students [would] not have a Thanksgiving dinner during our break.”
In classrooms all across the country, students are hungry. In Ohio, where Leatherman teaches in the Appalachian region, one in four children is classified as food insecure. Earlier this year, Appalachian teachers made national headlines with the historic teacher strike: The strike revealed not only the sub-par wages and treatment of teachers, but also the efforts public school teachers in the region routinely make to support all the needs of their students, educational and otherwise—including the need for food.
According to Feeding America, the country’s largest hunger-relief effort and a network of hundreds of food banks across the nation, concentration issues and behavioral issues can sometimes be linked to a student’s empty stomach.
Leatherman understands this well. “There are days [when] our focus shifts to just ensuring [students’] basic needs are met. We cannot expect a child to come to school and focus on school, when they haven’t eaten since lunch the day before,” she said in an interview with Rewire.News.
Years ago, after Leatherman gained one student’s trust, the child admitted that he didn’t have enough to eat at home. Leatherman and her assistants responded by creating a food drawer that the student knew he could access anytime without asking first. “This particular student was one who always tried to act like everything was OK, even when he had horrible things happening at home. For him to reach out and say he didn’t have food was a clear sign he was in need,” she said.
Since meeting that student, Leatherman and her assistants have kept the special drawer for children in need and stocked it with students’ favorites, items that are easily taken home and heated for dinner such as canned pasta, and food saved from lunch. They pay for much of the food out of their own pockets.
Leatherman’s school, like many public schools, participates in food outreach programs. One such program, called Blessings in a Backpack, provides food to the students each Friday, designed to carry the students—and sometimes their families—through the days without access to school food. “The vast majority of kids in my classroom receive food on Fridays for the weekend,” Leatherman said.
In addition to occasional food drives, Leatherman’s school also receives a yearly grant from a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service program called Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which provides free breakfast and lunch for each enrolled student. The program allows no-application easy access to free food for all students in high-poverty areas—much needed in the village of Pomeroy, Ohio, where Leatherman teaches and where there is a 38.8 percent poverty rate with median property values at less than $60,000.
“We know our students well and know which are in need so we watch them,” Leatherman said. “If there is a day where they seem particularly hungry, we offer them more food. If we have a student who is typically picky but likes what is for lunch that day, we frequently will pay for a second tray so they have plenty to eat that day. We buy or make cupcakes for birthdays along with holidays.”
“People don’t realize that, in schools every day, teachers are feeding kids that need [to be] fed. They’re putting clothes on the backs of kids who need clothes. They’re going on home visits. They’re buying school supplies for kids who don’t have it. So if we’re not gonna take care of our teachers, then those kids are not gonna get taken care of,” said Jessica Salfia, a West Virginia public school teacher and one of the editors of a collection of essays about the teachers’ strike, in an article for Bon Appetit.
According to Ellen Kroutel, a public school teacher who has served Athens City Schools in Ohio for almost 30 years, it requires a collective effort—both inside and outside the classroom—to take care of students. In her district, a school board member and a school nurse worked together to create a food pantry operating out of a former elementary school building. “This is a real problem in the Athens City School District. The food pantry that was set up … is always busy when they open. A visit out there will show you the amount of hunger in our district.”
For the first 20 years of Kroutel’s career, she taught at The Plains Elementary School, where she would often provide a snack for students mid-morning, sometimes paying for the items herself. “I don’t really know how much I spent there,” she said in an interview with Rewire.News. “It was just something we did among the sixth-grade teachers … We would buy bulk and share.”
At the middle school where she now teaches, Kroutel explained that she’s more likely to provide lunch money to individual students. During Kroutel’s early years at the middle school, a female student told Kroutel and some administrators that she was experiencing homelessness. The student was moved into Kroutel’s first-period class to be her “helper” that period, but also so the student could eat breakfast. “I offered her more than the lunchroom could. It allowed her to also take a rest in my room. I would always send some nonperishables home with her,” said Kroutel. “The food was provided by myself and our resource room.”
As with teachers’ day-to-day food outreach, when it came to the Appalachian teachers’ strike last spring, while local businesses contributed to the efforts, teachers paid out of their own pockets for some of the food they distributed free to students.
Before every single public school in West Virginia’s 55 counties closed for two weeks to secure teachers a 5 percent pay increase, the teachers packed lunches. They made sandwiches and scheduled distribution. They knew their students wouldn’t receive free or reduced lunch and breakfast when strikes closed the schools—and they knew that for some children, these were their only meals of the day. Teachers felt they had to provide for their students and for the community.
Jennifer Wood, a spokesperson for the American Federation of Teachers union in West Virginia, said in an interview with CNN, “Before [teachers] made the decision to strike they wanted to make sure their students’ needs were taken care of.”
According to Salfia, the West Virginia teacher who spoke to Bon Appetit: “It was all day on the picket line and then an evening of lunch packing somewhere. The packing of the lunches was first an act of love but also an act of strategy because it sent a clear message to both the public and the legislators that this was not about leaving our students behind.”
By continuing to provide food for the students during the strike, the protesting teachers used food as a form of activism, taking away the screen of the school walls to show the care they show students day in and day out, revealing teachers’ role in a healthy community and the urgency for fair compensation.
The strike inspired many more demands for fair wages across the country, and the resulting pay increase means not only more support for teachers, but that teachers will be able to provide more supplies for the students inside their classrooms.
As Leatherman said, “sometimes trying to figure out how to change the world can seem overwhelming, but for these kids, something as simple as having some extra food can change their world,” and their holidays.