As the pandemic exacerbated food insecurity for San Antonio families, students faced more difficulties in learning at home, a new study from the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Urban Education Institute found.

“We know students who are hungry are not successful learners,” said Brian Woods, superintendent of Northside Independent School District. “COVID has helped us highlight that trend.”

Woods spoke alongside Eric Cooper, president and CEO of the San Antonio Food Bank, and Mike Villarreal, director of the UTSA Urban Education Institute, on Friday at NISD’s Gustafson Stadium. As the three men detailed the connection between hunger and learning challenges for local students, thousands of cars drove through the stadium parking lot, trunks open, to pick up boxes of food as part of a San Antonio Food Bank distribution event.

Before coronavirus began spreading, the food bank would typically feed about 60,000 people each week, Cooper said. After the pandemic started, that number doubled. Villarreal found a similar trend in his Urban Education Institute study on the subject.

Twenty-six percent of San Antonio students and parents surveyed said they experienced food insecurity after school campuses closed last spring and virtual instruction began. In certain areas of the city, this insecurity was more prevalent. For example, 49 percent of Edgewood ISD families, 41 percent of Harlandale ISD families, and 41 percent of Southwest ISD families said they experienced food insecurity sometimes or often.

Common food insecurity by school system. Credit: Courtesy / UTSA

In Judson, North East, and Northside ISDs, the percentage of families experiencing food insecurity was 25 percent or less. Families were more likely to experience food insecurity if they had more children in their household and if a parent was not employed.

“We see the relationship between hunger and learning clearly in the numbers,” Villarreal said at the event Friday, noting his finding that students experiencing food insecurity often struggle with lower motivation in remote learning.

Villarreal surveyed high school students to learn more about the impact of this insecurity on learning. He found that 20 percent of high school students who said they always turned in assignments said they experienced food insecurity, but 65 percent of the students who reported never turning in school assignments described themselves as food insecure.

If students don’t have their basic needs met, students can’t rise to meet academic expectations, Villarreal said.

“Such [food] scarcity has been identified in the scientific literature as a precursor to decreased student learning and school engagement …,” the study states. “So while much of the talk on distance learning and school reopenings has focused on the digital divide and technology, we must continue to focus on ensuring students’ basic needs are met.”

Villarreal, Woods, and Cooper all emphasized the need for policy changes to address the problem of food insecurity and improve learning outcomes.

Pointing out the large-scale food distribution nearby, Cooper said bolstering a program like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, could get families “out of parking lots and into grocery stores.”

For the study, Villarreal and his team interviewed students ages 16 or older and parents of students ages 15 or younger. A total of 1,125 parents and students participated in the study.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.