Diana Iuzzini could tell there was more to her students’ lethargy and irritability than sleep-deprivation.
“They were coming in here sleepy — not from lack of sleep but from lack of nourishment and lack of energy,” she says.
Diana works with Newark Valley High School students four days a week as Youth Engagement Services (YES) Coordinator for Catholic Charities of Tompkins/Tioga. Recognizing the importance of nutrition for growing bodies and minds, the program offers snacks during the school day and after school. In October, Diana started a lunch table where kids in the program could make a sandwich or fix noodles.
“I couldn’t take it anymore, just watching these kids feel sleepy, exhausted, and short-tempered,” Diana says. “I have seen a huge change in the kids since the beginning of the year.”
Making sure kids have enough to eat fits in well with the mission of the YES Club, an academic support program that works to improve grades, minimize disciplinary issues of disadvantaged youth, and increase graduation outcomes. It offers workshops on life skills, including anger management, healthy eating and communication. But grant funding for Diana’s snack program was due to end so she reached out to the Food Bank.
The Food Bank began responding in earnest to requests from our school partners last year, when we received a large load of donated snack foods. The Snack Program developed organically, as more schools and children’s programs began requesting the snacks.
“School and after-school program staff were asking for more and more snacks because they could really notice a shift in kids’ behavior when they were hungry,” says Randi Quackenbush, Director of Community Impact at the Food Bank. “No one is at their best when they’re hungry. Educators saw that a box of raisins could really calm a kid down before talking with them about behavior issues. These small snacks can give a child some nutrition mid-day, before a long bus ride home, or at after school activities.”
From the initial donation of snack foods, the fledgling Snack Program has taken shape with help from funders like the Park Foundation and food manufacturers. The Food Bank is now working to develop new relationships with donors and other supporters to expand the Snack Program.
One in five children in the Southern Tier is at risk of food insecurity and may not know where their next meal is coming from. Children experiencing hunger are more likely to miss school and receive poor grades. Hunger is also associated with stomachaches, headaches, depression, anxiety and a decreased ability to focus — all of which impact educational attainment and ability to thrive. Studies show children without access to proper nutrition also struggle socially and behaviorally.
Although New York state law requires schools to provide lunch for students regardless of financial situation, Diana says many kids won’t go through the lunch line if they know they have a negative balance.
“Hunger comes with embarrassment,” Diana says. “When I so much as put peanut butter and jelly in front of some of these kids, the difference is noticeable.”