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Perspective | Combating food insecurity: A school-based solution

Millions of individuals and their families are suffering from the effects of food insecurity on a daily basis. Food insecurity is often defined as having a limited amount of finances or resources to access and purchase enough food for one’s household. The physical effects of hunger are directly linked to food insecurity and are consistently problematic for those who wish to live an active and healthy lifestyle.

During the past year, over 38 million Americans suffered from food insecurity and as the global pandemic surged, these concerns continued to skyrocket in the southern region of the United States. Within North Carolina, over a million of our fellow community members experience the harmful effects which stem from food insecurity. Extreme disparities still exist.

Who’s affected and why?

Research has noted that Black, Latinx, and Native Americans are suffering from higher rates of food insecurity in comparison to those living in white households. The prevalence of food insecurity is two times greater for Black and Hispanic households than those living in white households. In addition to this, children tend to be adversely affected by these ratios and when they live in households led by single parents. Many of these are homes located in rural food deserts where there is also a lack of access to fresh foods and sustainable jobs which provide transportation and financial stability.

When marginalized individuals reach out for help in order to overcome their food security needs, government supports such as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) are often accessed. Before the pandemic hit in 2020, 13% of North Carolina’s population was using this nutritional funding, including children across the state. However, even government assistance programs such as SNAP can lead to further racial discriminatory practices for those trying to access benefits including the use of false narratives and comprehensive eligibility requirements.

In the 1970s, critical and legal scholar Derrick Bell focused much of his work on the permanence of racism and its dominant role in American society. When critically discussing the issue of food security, we can arguably take Bell’s realist perspective to uncover how internalized and institutionalized racism plays a direct role in our society. Throughout the nation and our state, these inequitable structures continue to impact marginalized communities in disproportionate ways.

Food insecurity effects and schools

While these unfortunate realities exist for many members of marginalized communities, children who live under these circumstances are especially vulnerable. For example, children fight the effects of hunger such as anemia, aggression, anxiety, and a loss of working memory skills.

These health effects are directly linked to students’ success in the classroom. Many school districts across the nation have utilized government-funded services to support their students’ access to healthy food resources. Assistance is often provided by the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) which serves over 60% of the students enrolled in North Carolina’s public schools. Rural communities also display higher percentages of students utilizing these food assistance programs. Although school districts are crafting solutions to support students’ fight against hunger, teachers can also play a valuable role.

Teacher advocates: School and community garden spaces

When teachers empower their students to think and act critically, great change can occur. The use of school garden spaces has enormous potential in addressing the food security needs of our students. One of North Carolina’s largest school districts, Wake County Public Schools (WCPSS), has already begun the use of these equitable spaces with their Edible School Garden Initiative.

By using school-based gardens, teachers can expand their traditional classroom spaces into those that support students’ academic success but also their increased access to nutritious foods. Interested in starting your own school or classroom garden space with your students? Here are a few key steps you can begin to take with some helpful tools provided by WCPSS.

  1. Explore Interest: You must begin by gauging interest from administrators, teachers, parents, and students in order for this space to become a reality.
  2. Connect to Learning Objectives: The creation of school garden spaces needs to begin with clearly stated objectives. These objectives may include supporting state standards, building eco-literacy and connections with nature, teaching sustainable agricultural practices, combating food insecurity in our schools, and encouraging healthy eating habits.
  3. Creating a Plan: Planning a garden space can include decisions based on school approval, when and how to maintain the garden, gardening safety expectations, and how funding will be sourced. There are many different funding opportunities teachers may access such as national grants.
  4. Organizing Garden Activities: Accessing valuable resources such as lesson plans and community-based supports for gardening advice and curriculum supports such as local master gardener volunteers.
  5. Grow & Learn: After creating your own school garden space you can begin to involve all students, staff, parents, and community members. Teachers can support their students by connecting with community garden spaces located here in the Triad such as Sankofa Farm, The Hub Farm, and The Well Feed Garden. Connecting to community gardens can further support students’ access to sustainable food resources for themselves and their families. Engaging all stakeholders into the planning, creation, and harvesting of garden fresh foods will continue to benefit all who seek to end the fight for hunger.

Those who are suffering from food insecurity can be uplifted and supported by the motivating actions of students working alongside educators to build school garden spaces. Education can become a powerful “practice of freedom,” where students are critically and creatively participating in the transformation of their world.

School-based garden initiatives and connections to community garden spaces have the potential to engage students in such work. Teachers can support the creation of spaces where food security and academic needs can be met by taking root in equitable solutions such as these.

Corrie Dobis

Corrie Dobis is a doctoral student in the Literacy and English Language Arts Education program at N.C. State University. Dobis’s research interests include dialogic teaching practices, multiliteracy approaches to learning, and culturally relevant pedagogies for multilingual learners. She has spent five years teaching in the elementary grade classroom.