'Can't focus on only academics any more': How this school keeps Weed students fed

Mike Meyer
Special to Weed Press

Hunger can contribute to anxiety, depression and other mental health issues in children.

When they come to school hungry, it can affect their ability to learn and trigger stress.  

"Hunger is a symptom that reveals a level of stress, it's a pressure on everybody in the family," said Arden Carr, of Weed Elementary School. Carr is director of Counseling Services.

In an interview with the Weed Press last week, Carr, Principal Jon Ray, and school board President Debbie Goltz shared a glimpse what it's like for kids who go to school without having eaten, and on their parents.

"We have some kids who will ask to go to the Wellness Center because they need to talk. Others, their levels of anxiety, stress, or depression gets to the point that they're starting to act out," Carr said. "A huge part of this is food insecurity."

"There are some homes here where kids are waiting to eat until their brothers and sisters have eaten, that sort of thing ... some families aren't providing food," Carr said.

The pressures of hunger

"It's hard to find jobs that pay more than minimum wage around here," said Goltz when asked why some kids don't have enough food at home. Goltz has served on the school board for more than 20 years. "There are a lot of reasons (for hunger). I mean, there are choices, and there are situations."

Parents of hungry kids face hard choices about the necessities of life. Making one choice impacts another. Do I buy food or pay rent? Do I get gas or groceries or pay the electric bill?

Arden Carr, Weed Elementary School Counseling Services director

"I had to talk to a family last week that was trying to find child care they could afford for three kids," Carr said. "The best they found was $1,240 a month — which was more than what she made in her job.

"With the cost of housing, food and gasoline at such high levels, it takes two adults working full time to be able to afford a modest home. We have some parents working two jobs doing everything they can. Everything is so tight, it's difficult to be OK."

Weed's poverty rate this year is 32%, according to World Population Review. Carr described how the high rate of living impacts families.

"When parents are struggling (indefinitely), they often lack the energy and strength — the emotional stamina to provide their children basic levels of nurturing. When their kids come to school, they are hungry and just emotionally starving."

Weed Elementary is feeding all kids, regardless of need, first thing in the morning, then mid-morning, noon, mid-afternoon and in the early evening.

"Kids are dropped off at 7:15 and are here until 6 at night," Ray said. "Sometimes they're not even dropped off, they walk up. So we do breakfast, mid-morning snack, lunch, after-school snack and supper. Anywhere from 11 to 50 kids eat supper at the school every school day."

Debbie Goltz, Weed Union Elementary School Board of Trustees president

"When we started adding suppers to our after-school program," Goltz said, "we knew it would be a big move (forward). We knew that for some of them, it was going to be all they would get to eat at night."

The school does surveys to find out the number of kids who are not eating or not eating well. Of 199 kids surveyed, 64 reported they were not eating healthy meals.

"Which means they don't have enough to eat at home, or if they do eat, it's snacks," Carr said.

Not eating makes for a rough time

For boys and girls who are not provided "the basic, core elements of life" at home, even when they get meals on campus, coping at school can be a series of simple experiences that push them past their endurance.

It is the school counselors' job to help them deal with the range of emotional and social difficulties that envelope them.

"If something goes south, we drop what we're doing and go to that student in the classroom to see what we can do," Carr explained. "A student may come in the morning and may not want to engage, or another student says something to them and, because of how overwhelmed they are, they may react in a way that is much more aggressive than they need to be."

Weed Elementary counseling staff are certified in Lassen trauma/behavioral coaching. They work with the students, "coach" them to help unravel what they're dealing with, and identify other ways to get their need met.

"One of the first things we do, is check to see when they've eaten last." With something to eat," Carr said. "A lot of times it helps, you start to see their whole system slow down."

Eating changes the chemical balance of the brain and allows the student to become calmer. "We try to get them to reflect on what they're doing, then come up with an action plan with them to see what they can do better the next time there's a need."

Counselors at Weed Elementary go directly into the classroom to help students, if possible, rather than remove them to an office across campus. Pulling kids out of the class is disruptive, Carr said, but joining them where a situation has spilled over helps counselors make a connection in the student's own environment.

"The classroom is where the student needs to be, to be successful."

Easing the difficult energy a student is dealing with is part of the strategy.

"If you're having an issue and I'm down on the floor with you talking and hearing you when you say what's going on ... what happened at home or in school ... that's how it works." Carr smiled. "(The student) can regain his composure, reflect and come up with an action plan. Then we get that student back in his seat where he can rejoin the class and the teacher."

Jon Ray, Weed Elementary School principal

Kids are hungry; it doesn't matter why

The Weed Union Elementary School District puts a fourth of its budget into programs for students' physical, social and emotional well-being.

"You can't focus on only academics any more," Ray said. "I look at it like dehydration. You begin to hallucinate and the kidneys begin to shut down and all sorts of organ failure happens. So even if you get water, you're going to have lasting damage.

"So just getting water is not going to cure the problems that built up over a sustained period. The same for our mental wellness ... kids might be hungry and we might be starting to provide some of those basics, but we've got a long way to go before we can get them healthy."

"It doesn't matter to us how they got in that situation," Goltz said. "If they're hungry they're not going to feel well, and if they're hungry they're not going to do well."

Carr added that the hunger makes it hard for them " to manage that anxiety, that fear or anger, the depression."

"It's not a great situation for them or their peers," Goltz said.

"We are not asking parents, 'why are your kids hungry?' We want to come alongside and say, 'you're in a situation, we have access to resources, we just want to share them.'"