Student Well-Being

Student Hunger Over Winter Break: One 4th Grader’s Solution for His School

By Elizabeth Heubeck — December 22, 2022 4 min read
Image of students in line for a school meal.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Rachel Palmer has been the nurse at Michigan’s Dundee Community Schools, a district of about 1,500 students, for seven years. In that time, especially since the the onset of the pandemic, she’s seen an uptick in students who don’t have enough to eat.

This year, she reports that close to 35 percent of the district’s students qualify for free and reduced-price meals , an estimated 5 percent increase over last year.

Palmer is getting better at recognizing hunger among students. “I think I’m more attuned to the symptoms now,” she said. “When a student comes into the nurse’s office, I have to pick up: Is it a stomachache from anxiety, sickness, or not enough food?”

Palmer is not the only person in the school system aware that some students don’t have enough to eat. Randall Rice Jr., a 4th grader at Dundee Elementary School, noticed it, too, and three years ago, he decided to do something about it.

He approached his parents and told them that he didn’t want any of his classmates to be suffering, that he “wanted them to have full stomachs and feel well.” That led to the idea of collecting food for families who might be in need of extra support around the holidays.

122122 MB Dundee Community Schools 03 BS

The Randall family now is in its third year of collecting monetary donations during the holiday season from community members to buy food for the school district’s food pantry, which Palmer launched in 2019 when she became aware of the increasing prevalence of food insecurity among district families.

Palmer uses the food in the pantry for the district’s “backpack program,” which involves filling up backpacks of food that go home with students on weekends. The additional support from the Rice family goes toward filling backpacks with extra food before students leave for the extended winter break in December.

Barriers to accessing assistance

Food insecurity—a lack of consistent access to nutritious food—is prevalent among America’s children. In 2021, 12.5 percent of the nation’s households with children experienced food insecurity, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.Various efforts help combat the problem, from grassroots programs like the Dundee Community Schools food pantry to long-established initiatives such as the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, whose first iteration launched in 1939. But barriers sometimes prevent school-children from taking advantage of them.

Stigma surrounding food insecurity is one.

Consider the Dundee Community Schools backpack program. Palmer explains that the district makes it as confidential and easy as possible for families to register for the program; for instance, there are no financial barriers to entry (such as proof of annual income), and very few people in the school community know who participates. But families must self-identify to enroll in the program. Only 29 families from the elementary school, some that also have children in the district’s middle and high schools, have done so this year. This, despite an estimated 35 percent of Dundee students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals.

In a 2020 study by the Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior that explored issues related to food insecurity and childhood hunger among families living in rural Appalachia, researchers found that stigma related to self-reliance expectations was a significant barrier to families reporting food insecurity, childhood hunger, and participation of children in food-assistance programs.

Parents aren’t the only ones who feel the stigma around asking for help.

“When students get into middle school, they don’t want to take the backpacks home,” said Palmer. Among families with multiple children enrolled in the backpack program, she said the school tends to give the backpacks to the youngest to take home, as they are less likely to be self-conscious about accepting them.

Access to assistance during school breaks

Even when students and families willingly accept food assistance, it can be harder to come by during extended school closures such as winter break.

When schools close, children often can’t access free and reduced-price school-based meals. The USDA does provide funding to eligible schools and other providers to serve meals during summer and other school breaks, but those tend to require that families live in high-poverty communities or that they fill out applicatons in order for children to receive free meals.

122122 MB Dundee Community Schools 01 BS

Then there are smaller, less complicated responses to winter break hunger, such as Randall’s: “We go to the store, buy a bunch of simple stuff, fill our car, and bring it to school.”

When asked how his act of kindness makes him feel, Randall offers this one-word response: “Happy.”

So, too, is Palmer, who shares her excitement over seeing the Rice family car “filled to the brim” with food that provides additional assurance that Dundee families won’t be hungry during the winter holiday break.

“He’s not in it for the glory,” Palmer said.

But Randall’s good deed has not gone unnoticed in the tight-knit community of Dundee. When a local TV station ran a segment on it, Palmer said donations came pouring in. Also, after learning about his charitable act, the president of the Village of Dundee asked Randall to participate in this year’s annual Dundee tree-lighting ceremony.

The 10-year-old appears to be taking it all in stride. When asked what he would like to receive this holiday season, Randall seemed caught off guard—as if he hadn’t really given the question much thought. “Some books, maybe some Legos,” he said softly.


Student Well-Being K-12 Essentials Forum Boosting Student and Staff Mental Health: What Schools Can Do
Join this free virtual event based on recent reporting on student and staff mental health challenges and how schools have responded.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Curriculum Webinar
Practical Methods for Integrating Computer Science into Core Curriculum
Dive into insights on integrating computer science into core curricula with expert tips and practical strategies to empower students at every grade level.
Content provided by
Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Teen Girls Are Being Victimized by AI-Generated Nude Images
AI-generated deepfake nude images of teens were circulated at a schools in New Jersey and Washington.
5 min read
Dorota Mani sits for an interview in her office in Jersey City, N.J., on Nov. 8, 2023. Mani is the parent of a 14-year-old New Jersey student victimized by an AI-generated deepfake image.
Dorota Mani sits for an interview in her office in Jersey City, N.J., on Nov. 8, 2023. Mani is the parent of a 14-year-old New Jersey student victimized by an AI-generated deepfake image.
Peter K. Afriyie/AP
Student Well-Being How Districts Can Keep After-School and Summer Learning Alive After ESSER Dries Up
Roughly 8 in 10 school districts spent some of their federal COVID relief funds on after-school or summer learning.
4 min read
Multi-ethnic preschool boys playing with blocks.
E+ / Getty
Student Well-Being Kids Are Getting Priced Out of Youth Sports. How Schools Can Help
The rising costs of participating in organized youth sports is making these activities unaffordable for many families.
3 min read
Graham Bacigalupi, of Team Louisiana, watches from the dugout during the DYB, formerly Dixie Youth Baseball, Little League tournament in Ruston, La., on Aug. 8, 2023.
Graham Bacigalupi, of Team Louisiana, watches from the dugout during a Little League tournament in Ruston, La., on Aug. 8, 2023.
Gerald Herbert/AP
Student Well-Being All Public Schools Can Now Get Free COVID-19 Tests. Here's How
The Education Department is encouraging schools to share the COVID-19 tests with staff, families, and the broader community.
2 min read
COVID-19 antigen home tests indicating a positive result are photographed in New York on April 5, 2023.
COVID-19 antigen home tests indicating a positive result are photographed in New York on April 5, 2023.
Patrick Sison/AP