10/02/2012 02:01 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2012

Impoverished, Hungry Students and the New School Food Calorie Caps

A public school teacher named Brian left a comment on my blog, The Lunch Tray, regarding the new and controversial school food calorie caps. His story is an important one - read on:

. . . .I am a 1st grade teacher in a southern state, Title I school (95% free and reduced lunch) and here is the reality of the new food guidelines in my school: I know this is true because I eat breakfast and lunch with my kids every day and I eat the same foods they eat.

. . . . I'm pained every day watching my hungry kids stay hungry after eating lunch and nearly every day I have to comfort sad children who don't understand why they can't eat what they want when they are presented with a long line of choices.

These are children who may not eat an evening meal at home and may not get more than one meal a day on weekends, if that. Some parents are unable (for various reasons) to get their children to school on time for the free breakfast, which is also severely limited in choice, so these children face true hunger every day.

. . . . The children get their entree, a vegetable (most usually skip the vegetable -- though I highly encourage it and try to set a good example even when the vegetables are tasteless, unseasoned, and overcooked, which is nearly always), and a juice and a fruit.

Just this week I have had four of my 6-year olds in tears over lunch on more than one occasion. Two were crying inconsolably because they were not allowed to get a juice and 2 fruits and they were very hungry. They eventually confessed that they hadn't eaten anything since lunch the day before. I keep healthy snacks in the classroom in open containers that they are free to take whenever they choose but even at age 6 pride keeps some from admitting their hunger. The other two children were crying because they didn't care for any of the choices for entree or vegetable and they weren't allowed to substitute an extra fruit so they knew they would stay hungry. I bought some extra fruits on my tray and gave it to them when we were seated, along with my juice. We are not allowed to "share" food by state law but I am a maverick and make sure kids get what they want as far as I am able. I also pay if any of my kids' parents forget or are unable to pay for lunch. None of my kids will ever go hungry while in my care!

. . . . I think it is important to point out that this isn't just an issue for middle class families who care deeply about their child's diet and are able to provide abundant healthy food choices but school menus have great impact on many, many poor children who, through no fault of their own and often with no agency to change the situation, end up being pawns in the lunch tray wars.

The new 650-calorie limit on a kindergartener's lunch was set by the Institute of Medicine based on 1/3 of a child's daily recommended caloric intake. But if a child isn't getting dinner the night before, or breakfast that morning, of course a 650-calorie meal is not nearly enough to feed that child.

I was relaying Brian's account to someone who suggested that maybe the new calorie caps shouldn't apply at Title One schools.  That's an appealing idea on its face, but it's important to remember that schools in economically depressed areas can offer free, in-class breakfast and also qualify for the newly expanded federal after-school snack program.  Furthermore, as we've discussed on The Lunch Tray in the past, poverty and childhood obesity are not always mutually exclusive.  It's notable to me that even the Food Research and Action Center (one of the nation's leading anti-hunger nonprofits), strongly opposes the recent efforts by Iowa Congressman Steve King to repeal the calorie caps.

But at the same time, Brian's sobering story makes clear that millions of American children live in food insecure homes, school meals are often their only dependable source of food, yet for a variety of reasons (parental neglect, stigma, etc.) they may not be getting all the food that's being made available to them at school.  It's a tragic situation.

This seems like a good time to remind my readers that at the top of every Lunch Tray page is a tab which reads, "Help Hungry Kids."  You'll find there a list of charities I particularly like which are devoted to ameliorating hunger, here at home and worldwide.

Thanks in advance to those who contribute to this critical cause, and thanks to Brian for sharing his story.