How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Mission Possible: How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Hunger, poor health, & lack of learning

Thousands of children in Mercer County go to school each morning on an empty stomach.  These children who do not have access to a nutritionally sound diet, often experience fatigue and have a difficult time concentrating in school.  They also exhibit more behavioral issues and do much more poorly in school. 

Janet Poppedieck writes passionately about these children in "Free for All: Fixing School Food in America":  "Study after study has shown that hunger interferes with the ability of children to absorb an education.... Children who do not get enough to eat are listless and withdrawn or irritable and hostile.  They find it difficult to concentrate and are easily distracted.  They get sick more often and miss school more frequently than well-fed children.  They may act out in the classroom and thus interfere with the learning of other children. Experienced principals report that the first question they ask children referred for a disciplinary reason in the morning hours is 'Have you had breakfast?' and the answer is usually 'No.' ... Hunger is the enemy of education."

Hunger and poor health — symptoms of poverty — have an enormous effect on student learning.  Nevertheless, these prime predictors of poor school performance are frequently overlooked by those who are attempting to reform urban education. 

This was one of the findings Dale Russakoff reported in a recent book on the failed attempt to reform the Newark school system, in spite of the infusion of $100 million from Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.  In a review of the book, the following was written about what the Zuckerbergs learned from Newark as they prepare to make future charitable gifts: "This time ... a key component to their grants includes building a web of support for students, everything from medical to mental health care. Zuckerberg came to recognize that school reform alone isn't enough if we're going to make a difference in the classroom; we also need to make a difference in the lives of these children, many of whom struggle against the debilitating effects of poverty and trauma."

Too much of the discussion among urban education reformers revolves around whether reform should be "top-down" or "bottom-up."  Frequently, the debate ignores external factors.  What goes on in the home and on the streets has a tremendous impact on academic success.  Rather than focusing on "top-down" vs. "bottom-up," the focus should be on educating students from the "inside out," since you can't teach them till you reach them.   

We will not be able to educate the children of our cities unless we are able to penetrate the learning barriers that inhibit many inner-city children as a direct result of their adverse childhood experiences (ACE), such as physical and emotional abuse, neglect, witnessing domestic violence, homelessness, growing up around alcohol and other substance abuse.  More ACEs increase the risk of unhealthy and criminal behaviors, depression, drug use, and unintended pregnancies. ACE studies have documented a strong relationship between failure to learn and a wide array of negative health, social, emotional and cognitive impairments.   

To educate urban children, we need to understand the traumas that children face on a daily basis and try to address them as best we can.  This is the premise behind the newly implemented Trenton Community School Initiative, which received a $2.3 million five-year U.S. Department of Education.  The Luis Munoz Rivera Community Middle School will be a research-based partnership between Mercer Street Friends (the lead agency), Trenton Public Schools, the Luis Munoz Rivera Middle School, and various Trenton nonprofits.   

A brochure describing the school, prepared by Mercer Street Friends, clarifies what a community school is: "A community school is both a place, and a set of partnerships between the school and other community partners and resources.  Its integrated focus on academics, services, supports and opportunities leads to improved student learning, stronger families, and healthier communities.  School become centers of the community and is open to everyone – all day, every day."

The Rivera Community Middle School, which has been in planning for while, formally began in September (it is the first community school in Mercer County and the third in NJ).  It will seek to produce the following outcomes: "improvements in attendance and retention rates; improved parental engagement; positive changes in behavior among children and parents; and increased assess to supportive services for students, family members and community." 

On April 24 at a screening of documentary film about a community school in Cincinnati, produced and directed by American Public Media Marketplace reporter Amy Scott, Dr. Shannon Mason, Executive Director of Mercer Street Friends, described the community school model as an attempt to bring about "deep and sustainable impact."  It is a "strategy to address poverty -- not a program."   Earlier in a November 10, 2015 article in The Times, Mason said, "If we want our kids to be successful in school, we have to identify meaningful ways to engage their families and their parents."

Here's hoping that by combining best education practices, community/parental involvement and delivery of a broad array of social, health and child development services, the Trenton Community School will provide a template for improving Trenton's public schools.