Nearly 30% of 10th through 12th grade students at Springdale High School experienced food insecurity at moderate to high levels in the past year, according to a new study by University of Arkansas researchers that has assumptions and implications beyond Springdale.
Food insecurity is defined as a reduced availability of, or a limited ability to acquire, nutritionally adequate foods. Research has shown a link between poor diet, weight status (overweight or malnourished) and academic performance.
Of the 1,493 Springdale High students who were interviewed,
• 25% reported that they had been hungry at least a few times in the past weeks;
• 33% said they worried food would run out at home;
• 19% reported that they had not eaten breakfast in the past week;
• 45% said they had not eaten a green salad in the past week.
Students were surveyed by UA Professor Kevin Fitzpatrick, director of the Community and Family Institute in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, and Stephanie Collier, a Community and Family Institute research associate. Students surveyed were asked about social class, how connected they feel to their community, how they pay for lunch, who they would turn to for help if they couldn’t pay for lunch, the types of foods they ate recently, and related questions.
SHS Principal Pete Joenks said he was surprised that the number of food insecure students was as high as it was. That number represents about 645 students in the student body of 2,150.
“It’s sobering,” Joenks said.
The school has a poverty rate of nearly 71% which means that is the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced price meals in the school cafeteria. Several programs have been initiated to help students with food and other needs. The school has a small food pantry which also offers toiletries as well. There is also a small snack pack program which provides students quantities of snack-type food for weekends.
Joenks said the school recently entered into a partnership with First Presbyterian Church of Springdale for assistance with food. The school also offers an evening meal in the cafeteria, with help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for students attending night school or who are in after school tutoring programs.
“It’s similar to a school lunch only it’s in the evening Mondays through Thursdays,” he said.
“A lot of people probably think of younger kids but a lot of teenagers go through the same thing,” Joenks said.
The district has a food pantry in the Washington building on Emma Avenue. Kathy Launder, head nurse for the district, said on average two families a week visit the food pantry. That number tends to be higher around school vacations, especially Christmas and Thanksgiving.
Har-Ber High School also has a food pantry, which was started several years ago, Launder said.
One of the recommendations of the UA study is that each school establish its own food pantry. Launder said that may be easier said than done, noting several obstacles including a lack of space in many of Springdale schools.
FOOD, PLACE, AND SOCIAL CLASS CONNECTIONS
The study intends to help Springdale teachers, staff and administrators develop programs to address lifestyle and nutrition issues. It makes three other general recommendations:
• Continual collection of comprehensive data on health, nutrition and food insecurity;
• Expansion of the district’s farm-to-school programs to increase availability of healthy foods; and
• Expansion of health- and nutrition-related educational outreach opportunities.
Fitzpatrick and Collier also found that students who reported having strong friendships were less likely to have trouble accessing nutritional food, an indicator that relationships and social capital are important in lessening food insecurity.
“Understanding the complicated relationships between food, place and social relationships is critical to addressing the national problems of hunger and food insecurity, particularly among low-income, minority subgroups,” Fitzpatrick said.
The findings on food insecurity are in line with statewide figures for Arkansas. Evidence suggests that 30 percent of children under 18 in the state live in food-insecure households. Fitzpatrick said the food insecurity issue is reminiscent of a similar situation in the 1950s and 1960s. The federal government initiated programs that made the issue virtually go away.
“By the 1970s, it was a minimal social program,” he said.
Gradually those programs have since gone away or have seen major funding cuts until today food insecurity is handled almost entired by nonprofit agencies which are ill-equipped to handle such a major social program.
“The federal government needs to get back into the game,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’re a first world country moving to a third world problem.”
The work builds on Fitzpatrick’s 2012 study of similar issues among 5th-7th grade students at Owl Creek School in Fayetteville, and his ongoing research into place as a quality of life factor. Fitzpatrick co-edited in 2015 the book “A Place-Based Perspective of Food in Society.”
The Community and Family Institute in the Fulbright College of Arts and Science was created in 1997 to facilitate research on community and family issues/problems. With a specific focus on but not limited to Northwest Arkansas, the institute also engages in research addressing Arkansas, national, and international issues.
A community drive is planned Wednesday and Thursday (March 16-17), by the Northwest Arkansas Mercy Hospital in Rogers. The hospital, at 2710 Rife Medical Lane, will accept food donations from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on both days. The drive will benefit St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry to help feed the hungry in our community, according to Martine Pollard, executive director, Communications & Community Integration Northwest Arkansas Communities for Mercy.