In a black cabinet in her elementary school office, principal Jani Drake keeps small bags of pretzels or crackers, and every once in a while some cookies or candy. She calls them “rewards.”
When kids do well on a worksheet or spend extra time reading, they know they get to go see Mrs. Drake.
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“They can get in the black cabinet and see what they can find,” Drake says.
She stocks it with food, not stickers or little trinkets, because, the way she sees it, so many of her children at Rich Hill Elementary in Bates County are hungry, often not able to get all the food they need at home.
Roughly 70 percent of the elementary students at Rich Hill receive free or reduced-price lunches. So many have home stories that include a mom and dad with lost jobs and unpaid bills or working poor parents and bare cupboards.
A recent Map the Meal Gap study breaking down food insecurity by state and county shows Drake’s county has the most food-insecure children in the 26-county area Harvesters serves. Roughly one in three children in Bates County, about 60 miles south of Kansas City, live in homes where there often isn’t enough food.
“People don’t think kids go hungry in America,” Drake says. “They need to go to the schools on Monday morning and watch.”
At her school, she says, you’ll often see some students rush to be first in line for the free or reduced-price breakfast. After they’ve eaten that, they may go to her, look up into her eyes and say, “I’m still hungry, Mrs. Drake, what can you do?’”
Or they’ll sit in class distracted, unable to focus. When you’re in education long enough, especially in poorer districts, you learn pretty quickly, Drake says, that when a child is hungry his mind isn’t on a math problem or spelling word.
“Academics come second,” she says.