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Published: Sunday, May 5, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

A child's hunger shows up in school

I often get free books to review for my blog. Some of them are awful and some of them are good.

"A Dream So Big, Our Unlikely Journey to End the Tears of Hunger" by Steve Peifer and Gregg Lewis was so awfully good that the week after I read it for the first time, I was still waking up in the middle of night, haunted.

Steve and Nancy Peifer founded Kenya Kids Can, a charity in Africa that feeds 20,000 schoolchildren lunch each day and builds solar-powered computer classrooms at schools where there are barely even books. For his work, Steve Peifer received the 2007 CNN Heroes Award.

The reasoning behind Kenya Kids Can is that children who aren't starving will pay better attention in school. Then maybe, just maybe, a whole generation of better-educated children will be able to grow up and help their entire country.

The 35 schools in Kenya that benefit from this school nutrition program have all gone from being the lowest-performing schools in their zones to the highest. Their dropout rates virtually disappeared. All it took was beans, maize and a little bit of cooking fat.

I can't think about school lunch programs in any country without thinking about the first school I taught at in California, where 100 percent of the students received free breakfast and lunch.

The food served was so disgusting that I could barely stand to go into the cafeteria. Simply opening the door meant being assaulted by bad odors.

And yet … a frequent action item at staff meetings was what to do about a serious problem. Moms and younger siblings would hang around at breakfast, waiting to eat the leftovers. The principal could not allow this because our school could lose federal funding.

Weekends were really sad for me because I knew that many of my students would spend Saturday and Sunday hungry.

I was talking about school lunches with my son recently because I wanted him to understand how wonderful it is that in the Edmonds School District, kids can choose as much fresh food from the salad bar as they want. But then my 8-year-old told me, "That's not true, Mom. There's a limit on apples."

That's when we had a very deep and sad discussion about why some children might try to bring extra apples home with them, and why there might need to be a limit.

These past couple of weeks, students across Washington have been taking the Measurements of Student Progress, or MSP. But I want everyone to remember that those test scores don't tell you everything.

In Kenya, free lunches are improving schools. In America, it's frequently the case that schools with higher percentages of kids qualifying for free lunch score lower on standardized tests.

That's a juxtaposition, not a contradiction. Both are indicators of the extreme effect poverty has on education.

Jennifer Bardsley is an Edmonds mom of two and blogs at

Story tags » Education & SchoolsParentingPoverty

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