Gaps between rich and poor begin with hunger

We must first and foremost concern ourselves with the most existential problem facing Israeli students – food.

January 2, 2017 21:36
3 minute read.
Ramallah supermarket

Shoppers buy Israeli food products at a Ramallah supermarket in 2003. (photo credit: JAMAL ARURI / AFP)

The OECD recently published results from the international PISA test (Performance for International Student Assessment), that examines literacy in reading, math and science among 15-year-old students from 72 countries. In Israel, the most concerning factor the tests have shown is that the variance in grades between students from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds is the highest among all OECD countries. The poorer the family, the worse the student performs academically.

Every year with the publication of these results we debate explanations for these gaps. There are some who claim the root of the problem is the quality of teaching; good teachers don’t want to work in the periphery. Another reason given is that students whose parents don’t have financial stability simply can’t afford private lessons or enrichment classes. There’s also much discussion of unfair distribution of funds, despite the fact that the education budget has grown significantly, doubling in the past decade.

The least-often discussed reason is the most basic, yet most profound. Just as Maslow described in his “hierarchy of needs,” without providing for your physiological base needs, such as food, you can’t fulfill non-essential self-actualization needs, such as success and self-satisfaction. Before worrying about the quality of teaching or differential budgeting that aims to bridge educational gaps, we must first and foremost concern ourselves with the most existential problem facing Israeli students – food.

According to data from the National Insurance Institute, there are 800,000 children and youth living in Israel with food insecurity. Some head to school hungry every single day, having neither eaten breakfast nor prepared a sandwich for the day. Worse than that, most won’t even enjoy a meal throughout the day. The effect of children’s hunger is double: it’s both damaging and dangerous to their development and health while also affecting their ability to concentrate on their studies. Therefore, many drop out entirely from any educational framework, which significantly impacts their likelihood of a stable and secure future. A number of studies the world over have shown a clear connection between a nutritious breakfast and increased concentration in class, fewer absences from school, and improved educational achievements. Likewise, children suffering from prolonged hunger and nutritional deficiencies find it difficult to realize their full academic potential.

The Sandwich Program, whose goal is to provide needy students with breakfast, estimates that it serves only 7,500 Israeli students on a daily basis.

Between the organization Nevet and the local authorities, there are only so many available resources, leaving 13,500 students every day in Israel who don’t get proper nutrition throughout the day and remain hungry. A child who arrives at school every day without a sandwich is a child who isn’t concentrating on his studies. To him, “school” is simply a concrete building, not a place to develop and get an education. Even if the school has a lunch program (something only available in elementary schools), the majority of the day passes with the student going hungry, sometimes having not even eaten dinner the night before.

During the past school year, more than 20,000 kids needed breakfast on a daily basis.

A comparative study and feedback from schools participating in the Nevet Sandwich Program have both shown that 59% of the students came to school to get breakfast. Likewise, 17.5% improved their grades in math, and 93% of school principals and administrators reported that students’ behavior improved thanks to receiving breakfast.

Participating school administrators have indicated significant changes, among them more consistent attendance and calmer students, who no longer spend their day searching for food. Instead, they’re now capable of concentrating on their studies. We’re literally talking about saving children and their futures.

Lunch programs, as important as they are, don’t solve the entire problem. Breakfast for all kids, from 1st to 12th grade, is the change that will take a child out of the cycle of poverty, and transform him into a contributing member of society, as well as better enable him to integrate, something that will lead to equal opportunity and help reduce economic and social inequality.

The author is project manager at Nevet, the Morning Nutrition Program for Disadvantaged Students.

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