Back when I was an elementary school teacher in Compton, California, I always kept a supply of snacks in my classroom: A box of Cheerios, apples and oranges, Pop Tarts, a canister of raisins, juice boxes, and granola bars. All of my students were on free or reduced breakfast and lunch, but sometimes they arrived at school too late to get breakfast in the cafeteria. Sometimes they ate the breakfast, but because they hadn't had a good dinner the night before, they were quickly hungry again. Those snacks always came in handy.
One afternoon I decided to walk one of my students home. He'd attempted to stab another kid with a pencil and his mom didn't have a phone and hadn't responded to my notes home about the incident. Once we arrived, he proudly showed me the case of ramen noodles on top of the refrigerator. He simply heated a pack up every night, doused it with oil and salt, and ate it for dinner. Every night.
Everyone who's ever taught at a public school in a low income area has stories like this. And with nearly one fourth of American children living in poverty, the number of kids who need free breakfast and lunch—and whose families rely on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), the federal food stamp program—is growing. Still, it wasn't a surprise when one of Newark mayor Cory Booker's Twitter followers had a tough time believing that there are still families in America that are too poor to feed their children before they head to school. The Twitter follower also disagreed that it's the federal government's responsibility to ensure that those children don't hear the grumbling of their stomachs instead of the voices of their classmates and teachers.
Last week, Booker—who is a strong supporter of SNAP and had been tweeting his opposition to Congress' plans to slash $16 billion from the program—gamely agreed to step into the shoes of America's poor and live on $33, the equivalent of a week's worth of food stamps—all without accepting food from friends and colleagues, or noshing at swanky fundraisers and holiday parties. His social media updates about his struggles with the challenge—everything from burning his last sweet potato to the angst of taking small bites to delay hunger pains, and the fear of running out of food and having to subsist on mayonnaise—helped many Americans understand how tough it is to survive on $1.33 per meal.
But even though Booker's efforts helped raise awareness, as PostBourgie's Gene Demby points out, we can't forget the caveats inherent in the SNAP challenge. "You can't neatly partition off hunger from stuff like inadequate housing or electricity or health care or safety or education," writes Demby. "All those things are happening in concert and informing each other; their effects are cumulative."
That student of mine who existed on ramen noodle dinners didn't just have to deal with hunger. Unlike Booker, he went home to a one-bedroom home that he shared with four other family members and his mother's boyfriend. The roof leaked when it rained, he slept on the couch, and had to deal with seeing his mom getting beaten. He couldn't play in the front yard because of the violence in the neighborhood.
My stash of snacks couldn't begin to fix what was going in this child's life because of poverty.
Indeed, says Demby,
"...the accretion of poverty's psychic costs doesn't end when your belly is full. We know now that poverty saps people’s abilities to do effective cost-benefit analysis in all types of decisions; poor people already have to make too many of those least-terrible-option decisions each day, which means they simply choose not to make some decisions at all."
There was an end to Booker's SNAP challenge, but for the students I taught—and so many others in classrooms today—there is no end in sight. Poverty for them "isn't just economic," says Demby. "It's existential." It changes who you are and how you relate to the world forever.
Demby remembers "not having hot water at the crib at all during high school, and our stove not working." So "in order to bathe," he says, "we'd have to put a pot of water on a hot plate and lug it, gingerly, upstairs to the bathroom." He spent years taking "shallow baths that were either frigid or scalding. One of the best parts of going away to college for me," says Demby, "was that I could take long showers, every day, in my dorm if I wanted."
I don't know what happened to that student of mine. I worked my butt off to make sure he learned how to read—I still remember the first time he got an "A" on a grade-level reading comprehension quiz. I'd like to think that he went on to take long showers or enjoy the dizzying array of food choices in his college cafeteria—or that he became a Rhodes Scholar like Booker. I am hopeful, but I also remember just how much that child had to overcome to simply get to school every day.
Sure, Booker's right that preserving SNAP is essential and I'm glad he's fighting for it. Families—and children—would starve without the food it provides. But let's not take our eyes off the real issue: ending poverty. If we do that, we eliminate the other systemic issues that hold kids back from realizing their full potential. Whether that happens through the model of the Promise Neighborhoods, or some other program, that—not experiments in living like we're poor—has to be our goal. We just have to decide if we have the collective will to achieve it.