Day after day, as he monitored lunch hour at the Southwest Early College Campus, retired Army Maj. Gene Briseno would see students sitting at tables without any food in front of them.
“Are you going to eat?” he’d ask.
And always he’d get the same answers. “Not hungry” or “not feeling good.” Sometimes just a head shake.
Briseno, who teaches JROTC and has spent two decades working with at-risk kids in Kansas City, is almost embarrassed to admit he didn’t immediately realize what he was seeing.
“They didn’t have the money, didn’t have the 40 cents for a reduced (price) meal.” He shakes his head. “I missed it. I missed the hunger issue.”
With older kids, that’s easy to do, experts say. When children are young, if you ask them what they think or how they’re feeling, they’re bound to tell you.
But with teenagers, or even adolescents, it’s tough. They’re private. At times withdrawn. Even embarrassed.
That’s why advocates worry that teens across the Kansas City area are getting lost in the mix when it comes to addressing childhood hunger. Too often, advocates say, the push is to help families with young children: The preschooler lagging behind on the growth charts because he’s not getting enough nutritious food at home. The third-grader who goes to school with an empty stomach because mom couldn’t afford milk.
“People tend to brush aside the teens,” says Kerry Wrenick, the homeless liaison for the Kansas City, Kan., School District. “… It’s not the heart-wrencher when you see the teen who’s hungry. It’s like, ‘Oh, they’ll be all right.’
“The focus is always on the little ones, but the older ones have the same issues. Their brains are still developing, too.”
Hunger researchers say that until children turn 5, the nutrients and food they receive determine the size of their brains. From age 5 to 18, what they eat, and how much, determines how the brain performs.
With teens, a lack of food can affect attitude and performance in school as well as later in life, said Jaylene Lambert, school nurse at Olathe North High School.
“When your blood sugar is lower, you’re more moody and get into more conflicts,” Lambert said. “They have to have food to concentrate. They can’t process information if they don’t have it. And if they can’t process, they won’t stay in school.”
Once Briseno realized he was seeing hunger, he really saw it.
Teens who hadn’t eaten breakfast couldn’t concentrate on an early-morning test. Students who acted up late in the day, disrespecting teachers and peers, were in some cases just hungry. And at weekly meetings of the Cadet Club, where Briseno often serves a meal, kids would ask for seconds. Some even wanted to take food home.
One day a sophomore wanted to know whether Briseno planned to have food at the club that evening. He told her he wasn’t sure.
“Can I speak candidly to you, major?” she asked. A year later, he still remembers her next words.
“You adults don’t get it,” she told him. “We children like to be loved like you adults do. We like to be good. But don’t you do crazy stuff when you’re hungry?
“… I come to school hungry,” she said. “I don’t have the money to buy food and I go home to more hunger. Do you think I really care about math or science?”
For Briseno, that moment “drilled a hole in my heart.” And it told him that he and his Cadet Club students had to do something.
Trouble asking for help
Educators know that teens fear the stigma.
If there’s not enough food at home, most don’t want anyone to know it. Or to know that they can’t afford to eat lunch. It becomes their secret.
“They don’t want to be different, singled out as needing assistance,” said Kirby Hall, deputy superintendent for Belton schools. “They sometimes have trouble asking for help. … None of us wants to be perceived as unable to fend for himself or herself.”
Trouble is, the hunger problem only compounds itself when teens shy away from free or reduced-price lunches at school. Some schools say many students don’t even take the forms home.
For years, the school lunch system itself kept students away. The process at most schools inadvertently drew attention to students receiving food assistance. They had special cards or stood in a separate line.
The system now is automated, and all teens go through the same line. Yet schools across the area still see teens who need free or reduced-price lunch but decline to sign up for it. Often their parents, also, are too proud.
And the older the students get, the more reticent they become.
When students go to the nurse’s office at Olathe North and complain of hunger, Lambert will give them something to eat and then check to see whether they’re signed up for free or reduced-price lunch. If not, she talks to them, tells them how no one will know and then makes sure they’re signed up.
So far this semester, Belton’s high school (grades 10 through 12) is the only facility out of the district’s 11 schools where fewer than 50 percent of the students are receiving free or reduced-price lunch. The number is 43 percent.
For the freshman center, it’s 55 percent.
“I don’t think something magical happened and the students now are well-to-do,” Hall said.
At Kansas City’s Southwest campus, educators know that some kids have little to eat away from school.
“Several teachers keep some (food) in the classrooms,” said Southwest principal Ed Richardson. “The students know where to go where they can get something to eat.”
Wrenick found that out last year when she worked as a social worker with the Kansas City School District. Knowing that students were going without food, she and other district social workers partnered with Harvesters to provide sack lunches once a week at some schools. (High school students aren’t part of the BackSnack program, which provides elementary school students weekend packs of food to tide them over until school on Monday.)
At Northeast High School, one popular staff member used her own money to stockpile granola bars for students. When she started getting those sack lunches on Wednesdays, students lined up outside her door. The bags would be gone in a day, Wrenick said.
“They will tell you they are hungry if they have a relationship with you,” Wrenick says. “Relationship is going to be the biggest hurdle in order to have any teen, about any issue, open up to you.”
That’s why Richardson works to get his message to as many students as he can.
“It’s important to let people know when you need support,” he says. “And it’s important for them to know that the support will be there.”
Paying for lunch
Briseno’s message to his Cadet Club was simple.
Some of the students at their school, maybe even kids in some of their classes, were going hungry. When Briseno did more research, he discovered it was often the students eligible for reduced-price lunches.
“In this day and age in America, this isn’t right,” the major told them. “Surely we can do something.”
The whole idea behind Cadet Club, a group of 155 students, is to empower youth through character development, job training and academic achievement. The club challenges teens to grow, to think at a higher level. Get them involved in the community and show them they can make a difference.
This hunger project would be perfect, the students agreed. Especially when they thought about the kids they see every day in the lunchroom. They could, and still can, rattle off names of the kids they knew who were going without meals.
“Some say they’re not hungry, that they don’t want to eat, but they do,” said Southwest senior Michael Foster. “They just don’t want to tell people they don’t have the money.”
Added Jhonatan Vallejo, another Cadet Club member: “I think that part of the reason test scores are so low is they worry about what they can eat instead of studying.”
Before long, Foster, Vallejo and others in the club were out in the community, speaking to philanthropy groups and churches. They made phone calls. They asked people to help feed their classmates.
For Vallejo, raising the money and helping students at Southwest “makes you feel like you’re a part of something, that you’ve accomplished something.”
Between mid-May and now, the club has raised more than $2,600. This past semester, the Cadet students were able to pay for reduced-price breakfast and lunch for about 60 teens.
“I can’t say it strong enough that we have wonderful kids here,” Richardson says. “I’ve been so impressed with how responsible and determined they were to be part of the solution. Not only were they helping their community, but the student sitting next to them every day.”
One day a teen ahead of Foster in the lunch line went to pay for her meal. The clerk waved it off and said, “Someone raised enough money so you don’t have to pay.”
“As soon as I heard that, I was like, ‘Yes!’ ” Foster said.
The Cadet Club students now are raising money for next semester. Briseno estimates they’ll need nearly $3,800.
Students are calling business leaders and past contributors and telling people about this semester’s success, and about classmates who still need food assistance every day.
As word spread about the club’s effort, thank-you notes came in. One student said, “I appreciate your kindness sincerity towards me. … I know you will be blessed for your good heart.”
And then one came in from a parent. This note alone tells Briseno that what his students are doing is needed now more than ever.
The note read: “We have never had to accept help like this but we are very grateful for the help. My promise is that I will help you when we are able and we will not forget how generous you and your cadets have been at this time of need in our lives. My wife and I are very thankful for you and your caring cadets.”
Signed, “A thankful family.”