Kayla Brown was barely out of college, in her first teaching job, when she made a discovery that would change her life. One particularly delightful kindergarten student, a bright little boy whose initially sunny disposition and eagerness to learn were a joy to Brown, suddenly changed. "He snapped," she said. "It was like he just went from this perfect little sweet boy, then he was mean and he was awful. And his grades went down. It was like he wasn't even trying. He didn't want to," she said. No amount of coaxing, correcting or caring could shake the child from this change in personality. Then came the day when Brown, 24, was on cafeteria duty and heard a group of children laughing. They were laughing at the little boy. "I walked over closer to the table, and he was licking his plate," Brown said. The child was holding the plate in front of him and licking it, oblivious to the laughter around him. She thought he was goofing off or playing for attention until she moved closer and looked into the eyes of an intensely sad child. He explained to her: "I'm hungry." Brown learned that the boy's father had disappeared, leaving the family with no money and no food in the house. She went to her church and sought help for the family. That seemed like enough of a fix until she moved to a new school in Bowie, Texas, where there was a higher proportion of children living in poverty. "My whole class," she said, "was just, you know, irritable." She noticed they were particularly cranky on Monday mornings, and she remembered that had been the case with the little boy in her previous school. He received subsidized school breakfasts and lunches during the week, but went hungry for most evenings, and much of the weekend. "And I thought about that little boy, and it just kind of came back to me," Brown said. She reviewed test scores, poverty levels and behavior patterns, and added it up: Chances were that many of these children were simply hungry. She went to her new pastor and got her new church moving to supplement their meals.Today, she and her volunteers pack up food for 170 children every weekend. The project is called Backpack Buddies because teachers quietly slip the food into children's backpacks while most are at recess.
Students must qualify for the assistance, which includes nonperishable items such as juice boxes, fruit cups, soup and canned vegetables.
The program gets high marks from Jeannette Shaw, the counselor at the Bowie elementary school where Brown teaches.
"If a child is hungry, it's hard to focus on anything else," she said.
Shaw says that hunger is now at the top of the list when she checks to see what's going wrong with a student. "If a student is acting out, or a student chooses not to do work. … Sometimes it's looked at as a behavior or a discipline issue, but many, many times when I get a student down to my office and I ask the question, 'Did you get breakfast this morning? Can I get you something to eat?' That's all that is needed to solve the problem," Shaw said. Others have taken a cue from Backpack Buddies. Similar volunteer programs are under way in nearly a dozen states, feeding thousands of children each week. They rely on donations from food banks and the efforts of an army of volunteers. Many are seeing documentable differences in the children they serve. At Bowie Elementary, the standardized test scores of children enrolled in the Backpack Buddies program have steadily increased since the program began. Some have seen test scores improve as much as 20 percent. Simply getting those children enough to eat has been a huge factor.Brown is hoping to expand the Backpack Buddies program to feed children in her school district throughout the summer. She'll need more help, she says, and it can be tough to convince Americans that there are hungry children in their neighborhood. The fact is that hunger is often not obvious. The children usually don't look any different from their peers, and are very reluctant to stand out. "Kids don't say anything. Parents don't like to say it," Brown said.