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COLUMN ONE : Going to School Hungry : As poverty spreads, teachers often see students who have not eaten for days. Malnutrition hinders learning, but resistance to breakfast programs raises question of how far districts should go to help.

THE HUNGER WARS. Fighting for Food in Southern California. First of a series

November 20, 1994|SONIA NAZARIO | TIMES URBAN AFFAIRS WRITER

The symptoms have swept through Edgewood Middle School.

By 10 many mornings there is a long line outside the nurse's door at the West Covina school. Some children clutch their stomachs. Others grasp their heads. In this mostly middle-class bedroom community, these children share a common ailment. They are hungry.

One boy came into Assistant Principal Amelia Esposito's office last year and confessed to stealing food from a 7-Eleven store. "Every night I go to bed hungry," the 13-year-old told her, bowing his head. "There isn't enough food."

"It's scary how many kids here are hungry," says Esposito, who believes one in four children comes to class undernourished.

America's hunger is not the starvation of Somalia or Rwanda that galvanizes global attention: bloated bellies, emaciated arms, failing bodies along roadsides. Hunger here saps people in more subtle ways; families eat only once a day or skip meals for several days, causing chronic malnutrition. It is a problem that many researchers say eased markedly in the 1960s and '70s, but resurfaced with a vengeance in recent years.

Hunger, they say, afflicts up to 30 million Americans. Twelve million of them are children, many in recession-ravaged Southern California.

Their plight has emerged most publicly in the schools, where teachers delve into their own pockets to feed children whose ability to learn is being crippled by hunger.

Yet half of California's schools--including all 11 in the West Covina Unified School District--do not offer one ready remedy: breakfast, a federally funded entitlement. Nationally, 37% of the 13.6 million low-income children who get a subsidized lunch also eat a morning meal at school. In some districts, breakfast has been barred or eliminated by school officials who oppose it on philosophical grounds. Many in West Covina, where Christian conservatives dominate the school board, oppose feeding children breakfast at school, calling it anti-family and a usurpation of what should be a parent's responsibility.

"I want kids to eat at home with their families," said school board President Mike Spence. "Breakfast at school is just one more thing school districts do rather than allowing parents to take care of their children."

A suburb that blossomed from orange groves in the San Gabriel Valley after World War II, West Covina, the "City of Beautiful Homes," is an unlikely haven for hunger. In the 1980s, however, teachers watched as lost jobs, an influx of newcomers from the inner city and an increase in single mothers left many students living hand-to-mouth. Although the median family income in West Covina is $51,000, there are pockets of poverty: one in four single mothers lives on less than $14,800 a year.

Although the shifts in West Covina are hardly unique, the town's emerging economic stratification has made hunger highly visible in the schools.

The number of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches at Edgewood, the district's only middle school, has surged to nearly two-thirds from one-third a decade ago.

Among them is Cristina Yepez, a soft-spoken 12-year-old with freckles and wide-set blue eyes, who spends some mornings at the school health office complaining of stomachaches. Last year, she says, she got dizzy on the playground, crumpling onto the blacktop at Merced Elementary. She had had no breakfast that day. Dinner the night before was a potato.

"A lot of times, we have just bread," says Cristina, gently combing the silky red hair on her Little Mermaid doll as her family prepares for an evening's meal. "Sometimes, I get really hungry. But there's nothing more to eat. I go to my friend's house and pretend to play and say: 'Oh, can I have something to drink?' "

Cristina sits down with her mother, Darlene, and sister, Jesseca, 13, for dinner. It is their only meal today. One hot dog each, and water. Darlene Yepez, 38, who is divorced, was sidelined from a forklift job by a back injury but is searching for work. Meanwhile, the family survives on $607 in welfare and $130 in food stamps, which run out halfway through the month. Swallowing her pride, the mother has gone to West Covina's food pantry--but has used her five allowed visits. A few times, the girls have gone up to three days without food, she says, quietly beginning to sob. The last two weeks, she says, they have had one meal a day.

Studies show that hungry students are fatigued. They cannot concentrate. They do worse than their peers on standardized tests. Because they are ill twice as often, they miss class more frequently.

"They are dazed. You can see it in their eyes. Sometimes, their hands tremble," says Edgewood teacher Kim Breen, who estimates that three-quarters of her students arrive without eating breakfast. Some do not have the energy to raise their heads from their desks. One girl broke down last year in class, her hands shaking, describing how she had gone all weekend without eating.

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