50 years of US government action against poverty, which began with Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, has resulted in modest reductions in overall poverty levels. However, childhood poverty remains pernicious. According to the National Center on Childhood Poverty, more than 20% of US kids live in households below the poverty line.
It is key to understand that the solution to the problem of childhood poverty lies along the intersection of educational and socio-economic policy making, not in one domain or the other. As author Richard Rothstein explained “Nobody should be forced to choose between advocating for better schools or speaking out for greater social and economic equality. Both are essential. Each depends on the other.”1
The most immediate and damaging element of childhood poverty is hunger. Many kids go to bed hungry and wake up even hungrier in the morning. Because children who lack adequate nutrition do not learn as well, this is not only an ethical emergency, it is an educational crisis.
The evidence is clear that this failure to provide for the most basic of human needs for our children has significant long-term consequences for health, for schooling, and for adult social services. Even after adjusting for other variables such as household income, lack of appropriate nutrition negatively impacts student learning, makes it more likely students will have to repeat a grade, and has a long-term consequences for kids’ mental health.2
However, there is a light in the darkness in the fight against one particularly devastating aspect of poverty: childhood hunger.
In my hometown of Framingham, Massachusetts, Alicia and David Blais have taken it upon themselves to confront the challenge of feeding all of Framingham’s hungry children and adults and they are succeeding. Inspired by the loss of their son, Daniel, Alicia and David began a small passion project out of their restaurant, Foodie Cafe. They began offering meals to those in need, young and old, with a program they called Daniel’s Table.
What started small quickly became an absolute-game changer for Framingham. By the beginning of the year, Daniel’s Table was serving nearly 10,000 hot meals each month. This past May, Alicia and David opened DT Kitchen, a 6,500 square foot food preparation and distribution facility and they added a food truck to bring meals to the Framingham neighborhoods most in need. In addition, Daniel’s Table began handing out bags of nutritious food at one Framingham school for students to bring home over the weekend.
However, Alicia and David didn’t stop there. They soon discovered some unforeseen challenges to the program. Many students were reluctant to bring food home for the weekend, perhaps due to the stigma, perhaps out of childhood reluctance to accept help. Also, traditional canned and boxed food was not the best fit for families who were seeking ready-made and culturally relevant options after a long day of work.
In response to these challenges, Daniel’s Table is introducing a new program meant to overcome the challenges of stigma, the challenge of preparation, and a lack of cultural sensitivity in the prepared foods. The next phase of this effort will be ready-made, frozen, and culturally diverse meals distributed to students in the school nurse’s office. These meals will be distributed without the bureaucratic red tape that often comes with public support.
In addition, Daniel’s Table is also going to tackle the crisis of Framingham’s hidden hungry: seniors who lack the mobility, transportation, and social networks to access needed support, including food, health services, and social interaction. Teams of volunteer “DT first responders” are canvassing neighborhood by neighborhood finding the hidden hungry, identifying their needs, and connecting them with those prepared to help.
As Framingham makes a transition to a city form of government after more than 300 years as a town, it now has the potential to be the first American city that has ended hunger. Progress toward this goal is not linear. Daniel’s Table continues to be challenged by weak communication with other social service agencies and the lack of public transportation in Framingham. However, Alicia and David will not be deterred and Framingham’s city leadership should support their efforts to overcome these challenges.
Childhood poverty is a national crisis with far-reaching consequences for students health and learning. The lesson of Framingham and Daniel’s Table is that a cooperative effort of schools, community, and government can be effective in tackling our toughest challenges. In this environment and with the right combination of passion and action, individuals can overcome the challenge of hunger. This a lesson worth considering in every town and city in this country.
Please visit the Daniel’s Table website to learn more. http://www.danielstable.org
1 Rothstein, R. (2008). Whose Problem Is Poverty?. Educational Leadership, 65(7), 8-13.
2 Alaimo, K., Olson, C. M., & Frongillo, E. A. (2001). Food insufficiency and American school-aged children’s cognitive, academic, and psychosocial development. Pediatrics, 108(1), 44-53.