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A good school lunch can make all the difference in the behavior and ability of a child to focus on schoolwork, but sometimes they can be hard to come by. In this month's spotlight we hear from a former teacher who witnessed behavior problems caused by lack of food and from a former non-profit employee who worked behind the scenes to make lunches available to at-risk children who desperately needed them.
Academic Assistant II
Before you came to Georgia Tech you were a teacher. How many years did you teach, and what grades?
I spent 13 years teaching elementary school before I came here. I taught in Gwinnett, Fulton, at a private school, and for a year overseas in England. It was all elementary, and I taught every grade except kindergarten, but I taught mostly first grade.
Based on your experience and what you saw, how important is it for a child to have a good lunch at school?
It's basically vital. If a child isn't fed or if they're hungry, or if they've just had a gigantic handful of M&Ms for lunch, it affects their performance. It affects everything. Can they learn? Are they paying attention? Are they falling asleep? Are they rolling on the floor? Are they bouncing off the walls? Food is one of the basic needs, and if they don't have the food they need then they can't perform at their highest level.
How obvious was it when a student missed out on lunch or breakfast?
Most of the kids I taught were either on free or reduced lunch, so they were eating. But I had a kid who came in one time and was laying on the floor. It turns out he had a huge handful of candy for breakfast, and that was it. I called his mom and she said she was sorry, but he got into the candy before she could stop him. I could tell who was eating well and who wasn't. I taught first graders, and their moods are fairly obvious.
What are the basic elements of a good lunch?
A sandwich is a perfectly decent option. Dietary needs vary wildly, but a turkey or peanut butter sandwich is a good lunch. There should be something in a lunch with protein, grains, a fruit, vegetables, and that's about all they need.
Does breakfast get overlooked?
Sometimes. Breakfast is also very important. Kids have to get their energy up early in the day and if they come in and haven't eaten they can't focus. Sometimes I would ask kids if they had a snack with them. If a parent dropped them off and said "We're sorry, but we ran out of time for breakfast today" it was absolutely okay for them to eat at school. It's so important. I would take a child to the cafeteria and get them breakfast if I needed to. Missing breakfast would throw them off for the whole morning.
What types of behavioral problems does hunger cause?
A lack of food impacts different kids different ways. It depends on their personality. Sometimes they get tired, sometimes they space out. Sometimes they get grouchy, or fidget. It's different for each child, but it's never positive.
How long have you been at Tech and what brought you here?
I've been at Tech for almost two years. It will be two years in October. Unfortunately I needed to leave the public school system. I felt like I wasn't able to do what I needed to do for my students and that was very frustrating. I knew someone who was able to help me get a temp job at Tech and it worked out. I don't know that I'm done teaching, but I needed a break. The kids were great, but it was draining as a teacher. I needed to refresh, and Georgia Tech has been great.
What do you enjoy about working in the College of Engineering?
It's very rarely dull. It's similar to teaching in that there's something different every day with various requests. Students might come in because they slept through a final, or to drop of a thank you gift. You never know what they're here for and it keeps you on your toes. I don't like routine days. I enjoy the constant surprises and questions. It's a very healthy work environment, and it's nice to be around people who are working hard to help students.
Assistant to the Chair
Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
What type of experience do you have working with children who were dealing with food uncertainty?
Before I started at Tech I worked at Hands On Atlanta as a school program manager, which was basically running after school programs and things like that. The Atlanta Community Food Bank was a partner at Hands On, so we would work with them. They have a program where you kind of get to shop in their storage area for snacks and things like that for the after school programs. They were serving low income elementary school youth. I oversaw multiple school programs and our volunteers would go there to get snacks for the after school programs. The kids would get tutored in the afternoon, and things like that. Part of our way of paying them back for the help they gave us was to go back and volunteer regularly. A lot of that involved sorting and shelving the donations that come in- basic warehouse stuff.
How big is the demand for food bank services during the summer months and into the school year?
Huge. Very huge. A lot of people donate around the holidays and the rest of the year is missing that component. A lot of the need is during the summer because kids used to relying on the free and reduced lunch program aren't in school and they're not getting the meals they're accustomed to. We have a program here on campus called the Georgia Tech Horizons program- it's a summer program for disadvantaged youth- and they also run a summer free food program. It's great for the students who might not otherwise get that meal but many of these programs rely on donations.
If people don't want to shop for food donations can they donate cash?
People should absolutely consider cash donations. The Atlanta Food Bank has connections for buying in bulk and they can stretch a dollar very far. The CEO often says that every dollar donated can buy $8 worth of food. A lot of people don't have time to go and buy food for a donation, so cash can be easier and effective. It helps immensely and you can feed a lot of people that way. They know what the needs are, whether it's for things like toiletries that we don't think about, or food that they know is popular and will be used.
Tell us about the volunteer opportunity coming up next month.
We're going to take a group to the food bank through the CoE Cares program. We want to take at least 10 people and help in the warehouse. They have a great volunteer program that can accommodate groups or individuals. It's very organized. I know some people shy away from volunteering because it can be chaotic, but it's great there. It's very structured and systemized. It will be a great chance to help and get a better understanding of what goes on there behind the scenes. It will be exciting. The people there are fantastic, and it's one of the largest community food banks in the southeast.
How did you end up at Georgia Tech?
So, my path to Tech is kind of a long story. I was a humanities professor at a community college in Orlando, and I didn't want to finish my PhD. I needed a change of scenery so I moved here kind of on a whim, and I wanted to do something other than teaching. I had worked for non-profits before so that's how I wound up at Hands On Atlanta. Then I missed working in a university setting, so I came to Tech. I've been here for 10 years. I was in Physics for seven years and I'll have been at ChBE for three years in September.
What do you like about working at Tech?
The people. I like the community. It's like working in a little tiny city and I really like getting to know everyone. I enjoy working with different departments, and ChBE has been great.
School Lunch Memories
As a bonus we asked staff members to share some memories of school lunches from their childhood. Here are the responses:
My favorite memory about school lunches is when we all would go to lunch together – there would be a group of about 5 of us girls; some would bring their lunch and some would buy their lunch; I mostly brought my lunch from home. Anyway, we would all share our lunches and there was almost always nothing I would turn down, because I loved to eat and there was nothing I didn’t like or couldn’t eat; therefore, I was given the nickname, “Mikey”, by my lunch buddies!
- Carol Maddox (CEE)
My worst memory is from 5th grade – during a summer lunch program. It was very hot and we walked to the school where the program was being held. I was so thirsty when I got my food that I immediately opened my carton of milk and starting drinking. It was sour!!! To this day, I will not drink milk (or anything else) out of a carton.
- LaJauna Ellis (Dean's Office)
When I was in elementary school, we were required make our choices from the cafeteria line to meet school nutritional guidelines (and pizza was not a choice!). I was a pretty picky eater as a kid; didn’t like lots of fruits and vegetables. So, frequently the lady who sat at the end of the serving line to judge whether or not our selections met the standards, frequently snapped at me that I must select something that I lacked. I forget what the category was, but the only thing I came close to liking that fit into that category was the cottage cheese that was always available on the line. So I believe that every day during elementary school I was forced to eat this large curd cottage cheese. Yuk!! After all these years I still cannot stand the thought of large curd cottage cheese, and have never ever eaten another forkful of it.
- John Koon (CEE)