When you were in school, did you ever forget your lunch at home?

Since you'd planned on eating food from home, you probably didn't bring cash to buy a lunch, so you were stuck without anything to eat. Maybe you watched your classmates dig into their sandwiches, the smell of peanut butter and jelly making your mouth water. When your friends asked where your food was, you shrugged it off and told them you weren't hungry. But by the time you returned from the cafeteria, you were probably shifting in your seat, hoping nobody would hear your belly growling.

Cut to math class where you were likely struggling to pay attention long enough to solve even the simplest equation, too distracted by the emptiness in your stomach to concentrate. Maybe your teacher even caught you daydreaming, and you were too embarrassed to admit that you'd been thinking about what flavor granola bar you'd tear into once you got home.


Image via iStock.

But hopefully, you did actually get to eat that granola bar once you got home. Sadly, for many kids, that's not always the case.

In fact, for 1 in 6 children across the United States, hunger isn't just a matter of forgetting lunch when they leave for school.

These kids are dealing with food insecurity, which means they don't have reliable access to food.

In San Diego County alone, more than 400,000 people are considered food insecure, and of those people, 160,000 are children.

When that many children are affected, it really shows up in the classroom.

Feeding San Diego's Vince Hall visits Bayside Elementary School. Image via Feeding San Diego.

"When children are hungry, they can't perform in school," explains Vince Hall, CEO of the hunger relief organization Feeding San Diego. "They're not thinking about arithmetic, about literacy, about geography. They're thinking about being hungry."

While you might think fixing food insecurity is as simple as making school lunches affordable, addressing the problem is actually much more complicated than that.

The reality is that lunch isn't the only meal that struggling families have to worry about, and the cost of food isn't their only obstacle. When nutritious food isn't readily available, it also takes time and transportation costs to track it down. For struggling families, overcoming those obstacles can feel impossible, which usually leads to someone going hungry.

"You have mothers that are skipping their own meals to put food in the mouths of their children," Hall says.

That's why Hall and his team at Feeding San Diego are tackling all sides of the problem.

Image via Feeding San Diego.

Through Feeding San Diego's Feeding Kids initiative, they make nutritious food accessible by partnering with sites such as elementary schools, churches, and community centers and distributing fresh food to the families there.

"When parents are coming to take care of their kids' academic needs, they can also take care of their families' nutritional needs," Hall explains. In other words, rather than spending money to get to a place with healthy food, families don't have to go out of their way — the food is right at the school. And best of all, it's free.

Plus, since they bring the food directly to the schools, Feeding San Diego doesn't have to spend resources on its own storage facilities, which cuts down on costs and allows it to spend more directly on the services offered to families in need.

For example, at Bayside Elementary School — located in Imperial Beach, one of the poorest areas in San Diego County — Feeding San Diego opened a school pantry in December 2017 that essentially gave kids and their families their own version of a farmers market.

Image via Feeding San Diego.

Boxes and crates full of food were set up on the school's front lawn farmers-market-style, complete with reusable tote bags. Each family received about 20-25 pounds of food, including organic pasta, canned goods, and, of course, fresh produce straight from local farms.

Thanks to Feeding San Diego, families are already experiencing some promising results.

Feeding San Diego's surveys report that, among families participating in pantry sites, 88% report healthier eating behaviors such as eating more fruits and vegetables and preparing more food at home. Plus, 52% of parents reported improvements in grades and attendance, which should come as no surprise since having food to eat boosts mental health, concentration, and cognitive development.

Image via Feeding San Diego.

A school pantry can also change interactions between parents and administrators, Hall says, and help parents feel like valued members of the community. One principal told Hall that he's grateful to have moments with parents that aren't just about discipline or problems with students.

"There's smiles, there's handshakes, there's hugs," he says. "There's an incredible bonding that's going on between the families and the school staff … that brings a much more human connection."

Hall says he's even witnessed tears from parents who are relieved about being able to feed their kids nutritious food without breaking the bank.

Image via Feeding San Diego.

All families deserve access to nutritious food. With creative ideas like food pantries, we can make that possible.

For the low-income families who need fresh food resources the most, it's touching to have an organization like Feeding San Diego recognize the obstacles in front of them, and give them the chance at the healthy living they deserve.

And with greater awareness of what it takes to keep families fed, hopefully we'll be seeing more endeavors like this popping up all over the country in the years to come.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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