Compassion fatigue

My post about breakfast in the classroom resonated with a lot of people, but not in the way I expected. Some readers commented that they couldn’t believe that parents can’t feed their child before school. Here’s one excerpted comment…

I don’t really agree with the state feeding children all their meals. This is the responsibility of the parents. Parents can’t hack it? Then these kids should be living with someone who can. -Anonymous

Thank you for adding your voice to this discussion. I don’t mean to repost the comment to single the person out but it use it as an example how we all feel sometimes. I’ve blogged about my dad’s view of the school lunch program, which is similar to this commenter’s.

In our country, 46.3 million people live in poverty, the largest number in 51 years. So yeah, I feel overwhelmed too. There is so much need.

Recently, I attended and spoke at Mom Congress. I think I owe you a recap post… But anyway, one of the amazing people who spoke was Mark Shriver, Vice President and Managing Director of U.S. Programs for Save the Children. He said something very profound in reference to the old adage, “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

“Three year olds don’t have bootstraps.”

Every day I’m reminded that my students’ lives exist in only two places: home and school. Many if my students only visit museums, zoos, farms, fire stations, etc on field trips. If home is poorly enriched and school is too, that’s it. If they don’t get fed in school, they don’t get fed. Education is their bootstrap.

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37 thoughts on “Compassion fatigue

  1. It looks like a good post to me! Ideally, every parent would have the time, money, and knowledge to give his/her child a good breakfast, but we don't live in an ideal world.

    It sounds from your prior post that the results are speaking for themselves – breakfast in school is making things better.

  2. This is really disappointing. I think if these individuals got off their high horses, they might realize the extenuating circumstances of many parents in just feeding their kids on a daily basis, especially if we're talking about economic disparity in inner-cities. Is a single mother working two jobs to keep food on the table supposed to be the villain here for not having the capability of making a warm, filling breakfast for her kids every morning?

  3. I totally get it. However, as of late with all the bad economic news in the media as of late, I feel that we should stop focusing so much on aid for other countries and take care of our own. So many of these children don't get meals at home and why is that? Food pantries are hurting and there are not enough donations. We struggle to meet our US budget and debt levels, but we can send billions and trillions overseas and our own children are hungry and don't have proper homes with electricity and running water?

  4. Tracey I was just about to comment with the same. We need to focus on the crumbling society closest to home and that IS home.

  5. Great post! I agree completely. Of course, issues such as poverty are just the symptoms of deeper problems. The huge disparity of wealth in our country and around the world in part is created by this belief that the individual is more important than the collective. If we all developed a true sense of compassion and justice, then no person or nation could live with amassing billions while others live in poverty. We are all connected as one human body. When part of the body feels pain, we all suffer, whether we realize it or not.

  6. I realize I (and others who commented in alike vein) touched off a nerve. However for those who think that I am a "ritzy bitch" who only drinks "organic milk" and "should live in a shelter for a month" I would like to make the point that until very recently my family of 4 (with a 5th on the way) were living with a grocery budget of $100 a month. In fact in 2008 and 2009 I spent a grand total of just over $1200 to feed our family. Last year I did spend more (over $2000) but our kids are eating more and we made the choice to go to a much healthier type of meat which meant a large bulk purchase. My husband is self-employed and I stay home with our kids. We have no health insurance, but rely on a program called Samaritan's ministries and our own savings to pay all our health bills. We are in a good financial situation because we have worked hard and saved like crazy and live very, very, very frugally.

    Is this possible for everyone? No, not even close. I realize this and that is why we donated more money to people and causes we care about then to our own grocery budget. I've never lived in a shelter and hope to God I never do. I would do anything to keep my kids safe and fed, as would many parents. However, we do not have a cell phone or a big screen TV and I see many poor families in our city that do. Ones who are on many public programs that I help pay for. Ones who 'need' these types of programs because they have no money, no food, no insurance.

    I feel deeply for the working moms who are struggling and the families who have lost jobs. I know it is my duty to help those who are simply in a rough patch and need a hand up. I just cannot stand the choices that people make that often times put them in situations that they then scream someone else needs to fix.

    And I still stand by the fact that families should be spending time together at the breakfast table. We often ate breakfast at 5:30-6 am when I was growing up. That was to make it to school by 8 and to eat with my dad before he left for work. It can be (and should be) done in most cases.


  7. Ms. Q, I appreciate that you often have a positive reaction, or at least find some positive things to say, about things I initially think you will be negative about. That's why I keep reading.

  8. Anon-agree 100% with you. I also had to chuckle when I read the ritzy b post-up till recently I was feeding a family of five on $200 a month. Heck we even used cloth tp because paper was too expensive lol! I also agree that breakfast is a great time for kids to socialize-with their families 🙂

  9. That's exactly right. We are talking about minor children, who are completely dependent upon adults to do the right thing. Anybody can have a kid, but that doesn't make them a great parent. As a society, we can't let kids suffer for the failings of their parents.

  10. This is a deep issue. I appreciate both Heather's words and yours Mrs Q.

    I often have been on the fence of this issue. People SHOULD take responsibility for themselves. And parents SHOULD take care of their kids. And I don't think that anyone can deny that welfare programs of any kind create problems as well as solving them. But as a nation is it okay to pass the buck and say it is someone's responsibility to feed these kids who isn't currently doing it? They are KIDS.

    Our government system can't possibly fully support all the children that really need additional nutritional help. So placing these kids in foster care is not a realistic approach. It looks good in a blog comment rant, but it doesn't work. But at least the school food programs provide a certain stop gap.

    From my perspective, there is no quick fix, no magic bullet. And both sides of the argument don't address all the problems. Every school is different, and every schools problems are different.

    I am glad that you posted this.

  11. It takes a village to raise a child. The problem is that in our economy, we live by the motto "Every man for himself". It's really too bad that as a community (village) we don't see more compassion instead of hoarding and gluttony.

  12. I'm just appalled that in this supposedly first-world country, there are families under such pressure that they are not able to give their children breakfast before school – something I'd assume would be a priority for any parent. I don't pretend to fully understand the economic reasons for this, but assume it must have a lot to do with low wages and high cost of accommodation, because unskilled service industry jobs are most often where richer people live, and thus the people doing the low income jobs that serve them find themselves priced out of the housing market.
    If you're working all hours simply to put a roof over your children's heads then I could see why it might be as much as you're capable of – both financially and in terms of time – to get them and yourself dressed and out of the door in the morning.
    Personally I don't believe free school breakfasts are the answer: I'd rather see a higher minimum wage and government subsidized provision of affordable housing. But that's considered a dangerously subversive thing to say in this country.

  13. I think there are those of us who stand behind people at Wal Mart who use WIC to buy their milk and bread and then turn around and use their own cash to buy cigarettes. In my opinion, if you can afford cigs you don't need WIC and that voucher should go to someone else. That is where my compassion fatigue comes from.

  14. Our school has breakfast in cafeteria for K-2, and classroom for 3-4. It is free for all students, as is lunch, but neither is mandated. My own two kids do not eat breakfast at school and mostly pack lunch, though they do eat an occasional school lunch.

    I know I have said it before, but I think the in-class breakfast is particularly poor. Some days as many as 40 g of sugar! Some kids drink 2 chocolate milk. They almost always only have flavored milk available in the classroom, and many kids put strawberry mik over sweetened cereal, like Fruity Cheerios. They don't have a choice of food, but sometimes have hot, and sometimes have cold. Yesterday it was flavored yogurt, a small bag of snack graham crackers, and juice, along with milk. They never get whole fruit. Occasionally applesauce.

    My kids are not ostracized because they don't eat breakfast. Quite a few of the children don't eat breakfast, or choose to just have juice. At least a handful of kids in every class pack their lunch, too, though most are for pickiness reasons, not because they are eating something healthier.

    I have no problem with the kids getting breakfast at school, in theory. Those who judge thcos parent should walk a mile in their shoes first. And I vehemently disagree that not feeding their kids breakfast makes them unfit parents and should result in them being removed from the home. I mean, there are already a shortage of good foster homes. Where exactly will all of these children go? And anyone with any foster care experience knows that being removed from their parents is hard, even in the case of abuse. It's just hard.

    What I wish is that the breakfasts were better. I have a hard time with the most disadvantaged being fed junk.

  15. While I fully understand that sometimes school food is the only food that some kids get in a day, I'm wondering when it stopped being the responsibility of the parents to care for their children.

    Ensuring that kids have clothes, a roof over their heads, and food is not the responsibility of anyone except the parents/legal guardians. It's certainly admirable and commendable that so many schools do offer breakfast. But there are expectations that go along with raising a child, one of which is feeding your kids.

    I'm not a parent, so maybe I'm speaking out of turn. But I was raised by two parents who each worked multiple jobs to make sure that my sister and I were well fed. Often, that meant that we watched TVs that were 15 years old, or that my parents didn't buy new clothes for themselves for years. But we always had options for breakfast, we bought school lunch (at regular price), and we (usually) had a pretty healthy dinner. Part of being a parent is sacrifice, but the other part is being an active part of your child's life. As such, it seems silly to me that school's are now acting the part of the parent. When did the responsibility shift, and why is it condoned?

  16. Perhaps this isn't a case of economics we are dealing with, but other factors that contribute to the need for children being fed breakfast at school. Everyone has a different metabolism. I, for one, cannot eat when I first get up. I have to be awake 2-3 hours before I can eat. One of my daughters is that way, also. My husband and other two children need to eat when they wake up. Perhaps many of these kids aren't fed at home not because the parents didn't want to feed them, but because they can't eat when they first get up. Factor in if they ride bus and have to catch their ride an hour before the school day starts. I don't think it is neglect on the part of the parents by not feeding their kids, there are a lot of other factors to consider. Oftentimes kids these days are latchkey kids and parents have already left for the day when they get up for school. And many kids who are not living at the poverty level, breakfast at school is a convenience to the parents who would have otherwise tossed their kids a donut or fast food item enroute to school.

  17. I like that: kids don't have bootstraps. That's the whole point, isn't it? We can judge the parents for being bad parents, but if we as a society can keep a child from suffering, we should. Some children are born into poverty. It's not their fault.

  18. Thank you for your blog! It has opened my eyes to what I will be walking into when my now 4 year old enters school next year!

    I have some thoughts on government food programs too. I agree with you that we have to feed the children. And with the comment that 3 year olds don't have bootstraps. I work for the Ohio Department of Health and we provide free health care (particularly vision care) for children in Ohio. But what I see now are those 3 year olds who have grown up and now have 3 year olds and are completely dependent on the goverment to care for thier own children. They have no idea, incentive, or motivation to do it themselves. And they are outraged when they can't get it in a manner that they deem acceptable. In fact, in Ohio, we offer pregnant women on medicaid "incentives" like wal-mart gift cards for showing up to prenatal exams…what have we created?? Generational Poverty, I think.

  19. I used to work at a school district that did the backpack program, sending home backpacks filled with food for the weekend because they knew the kids wouldn't have anything to eat. I'm reminded of one of my 6th grade boys–very simple child who had a mom in and out of rehab. He'd get his bag on Friday during our "Team Time" and he'd return to class digging through, cheering at what awesome meals they'd have this weekend. Mac 'n Cheese, canned stew, fruit snacks, packs of cereal. That's what he was stoked about. He also once asked if he could take a few extra cookies that I'd given to my team group for his siblings. They were those loft house cookies (kinda soft, icing and sprinkles, really common here). He said they'd be so excited, because he knew HE'D never tasted anything like that. I sent him home with everything I had. I felt so bad.

    We don't realize that YES, there ARE parents who cannot take care of their children, AT ALL. Now, I do take care of my baby. I make her food. I research research research. But I also have the intelligence and means (money and time) to do so. But for the high horses… imagine if something happened and you couldn't. You just couldn't. I'd be heart broken sending my kid to school with no food, or knowing over the weekend we couldn't provide her with a decent meal. I'm glad we have programs to help. Those kids didn't do anything wrong. They didn't ask to be born to the poor, or the incarcerated, or the druggies. There is more to fix in our society–it's not the same as just "teaching someone to fish". There is so much more to fix. Do we have the means to do that before dinner rolls around?

  20. It's nice to say that parents should step up, so more, etc. I'm not a parent, so I don't think it is my place to make that judgement call. But I have become involved with the Big Brother/ Big Sister program, and that has opened my eyes to a new perspective.

    My little is a sweet 10 year old girl that has three sisters. Her mom is a recent divorcee that is working full time and barely scrapes by. I'm pretty sure that when she made the decision to have 4 kids with her then husband, I'm sure she did not expect to end up doing it on her own.

    My little has school breakfast and lunch. It sounds like the breakfast is an integral part of the school day, because she takes the bus and it gets her there in time to have it. (I'm holding back my judgement on the quality of the food, that's not my point here).

    It is probably a relief for the mom to know that her 4 daughters are going to get breakfast and lunch at school.

    We can say someone "should" do something this way and someone "should" do something that way… but the truth of the matter is- there are kids who are hungry! Kids! And we, as a society can do something about it.

  21. Like you Mrs. Q, I teach young children in a rural area where 86% of families live below the poverty level and most of my students receive free or reduced lunch.
    When I started teaching, I was appalled and often angry about how little I *thought* parents were caring for their children.
    Here we teachers were, turning ourselves inside out to educate their child in hopes of giving these kids a future the parents never had, and their parents couldn't manage the simplest things (showing up for conferences, returning necessary paper work, sending school supplies, etc.)
    As my time in the school grew, and I got to know more and more families and heard their stories, a slow understanding and even respect began to grow for these parents.
    I started to put myself in the situations they were facing ( home foreclosure, spouse in jail or prison, catastrophic illness or injury)
    I realized that their choices may not have been my choices, they were still doing the very best they could given the situation.
    Now, my goal is to make school the best place a kid can be in hopes that kids stay in school and look toward the future.
    I totally agree that school food needs total reform, but for the time being, it may be better than nothing.
    Just my thoughts…

  22. Insightful post. I do believe parents should be held accountable for feeding their kids. I don't think it should be up to the government. But where's the balance? How can you be sure the kids who need lunch are getting it and the kids who's parents are just being lazy are held accountable? Maybe it's time to take government out of of every single aspect of our lives. Maybe it's time for the communities and churches to step up and care for those that really need it.

  23. I don't really agree with the state feeding children all their meals. This is the responsibility of the parents. Parents can't hack it? Then these kids should be living with someone who can. -Anonymous

    Does Anonymous realize that foster care costs more than two or three meals a day served in school? Plus the effects on the children, which will ultimately cost even *more* to society!

  24. I work with ESL students and most of them receive free lunches. Some of the students do eat breakfast before school, but for the most part, they don't.
    Because they're not hungry or because they don't have enough time. My high school students start school at 7:20 and are out at 1:40. Seriously, why do they need to be in there that early and out that early? It wouldn't fix the problem of not eating breakfast, but it might do something positive for them.
    My middle school students all ride the bus, and if they get free lunch, they get free breakfast too. However, when the bus rolls up 10 minutes before class starts, they're not allowed to get breakfast because there isn't enough time. I understand that class needs to start on time, but I don't think letting a few kids finish their cheerios would do much damage to their 2 hour block.


  25. If you really think about it, the "bootstraps" image is utterly ridiculous to begin with. If someone tries to pull herself up by her bootstraps, she would knock herself right onto her backside.

    I'm all for the idea of giving people a hand-up instead of a hand-out. Instead of pulling anyone up by bootstraps, wouldn't it make more sense for a compassionate neighbor to reach out and take her by the hand to help her up? One of my favorite quotes by one of my favorite people is: “What the poor need is co-workers, not caseworkers; capital, not charity.” –Clarence Jordan

    Let's stop judging and start listening. I bet we'll be surprised how much we can learn from each other.

  26. I'm all for personal responsibility. But I also completely agree with Mark Shriver's comment. We fail them as kids, and then we turn around and blame them as adults. If their parents can't "hack" it then yes, we step in and try to give these kids what they need to become productive adults and citizens. Personally, I'd rather invest in education and nutrition for kids than pay the costs of not doing so down the road.

  27. I liked what Danielle had to say. I have agreed with her for sometimes, but no where in political discussions has it ever been named "Generational Poverty" that I am aware. And I don't always discuss it because it is controversial.

    I can't claim to be democratic or republican on the topic of welfare or hand out programs. Both are inadequate and yet both fix some issues. I don't think that programs that offer hand outs like free breakfasts give anyone incentive to get out of poverty. So they can never be seen as temporary programs, soon enough they will be entrenched in the culture of those who receive it.

    The same goes for the programs Danielle described in Ohio, welfare or even in some cases section 8 housing. The programs themselves don't do enough to incent people to get OFF the programs. So we get into a downward spiral of giving out more. And all we have done through the creeping expansion of various welfare like/ hand out programs is created government subsidized economic slavery. And politicians are getting relected with the votes of whom they enslave because the spin is so positive and "I am on your side".

    But even though I believe the above–it DOESN'T address the issue that kids should be fed by their parents, by neighbors and caring family members, by schools, by anyone. Because that is the Christian (insert other religious affiliations, I am pretty sure all religions agree upon charity) thing to do.

    These issues are real beasts.

  28. This is a really interesting discussion.
    From what I can see, this issue goes so much further back than just the family. My initial response is to think that people shouldn't be having children if they won't be able to afford to give them a good quality of life, and that includes providing meals at home. Harsh, but there it is – I truly believe that too many children are born to parents who do not have the resources to support them, and should rethink their decision to become parents. Of course, there are many people who have children with the expectation that they will be able to care for them properly, until something unexpected happens, like job loss or divorce. So in those cases, there should by some systemic support for people who are getting their lives together again. Free/subsidised lunch and breakfast is certainly a part of that, and the children in these situations should never have to suffer, in any way.

    Having said that, where is the education for teens and young adults that teaches them life skills like contraception, budgeting, how to find and keep a job, how to find and maintain a home, how to communicate effectively, and how to understand the law? Why do couples function financially well together, but the primary caregiver struggles so much after a divorce? Why are child support payments not adequately covering that gap? Why is there not enough economic support and resources for individuals and business that will either prevent large scale job losses, or minimise the impact of economic fluctuation on small businesses?

    It seems to me that free lunch and free breakfast are just end outcome of a huge, dysfunctional machine made up of hundreds of parts, and change needs to happen from the top down as well. While I think improving school lunch is a wonderful cause, someone needs to prevent the need for it in the first place as well.

  29. Cohesive? This is my favorite post of all time! "Education is their bootstrap." So very true. Education helps break the cycle of ignorance and if it doesn't break, it goes on and on and on…

  30. I am the parent of 4 children. We are not rich by any stretch of the imagination, but are middle-class. We are well educated, but our primary income is my husband's and because we both work in the field of education, the salaries are not high (I am sure Mrs. Q can relate).

    We are not and have not been on any public assistance because we do not qualify, so I have no experience with that other than in elementary school when Iqualified for reduced price lunch because my dad was in graduate school and my mom's secretary salary was pretty small. She had a college degree, but back in the olden days (1960's) college-educated women became either nurses, teachers, or secretaries, and that was it.

    Enough about my background. The here and now is that until 3 or 4 years ago, my hubby and I ate the typical American diet. I am overweight, so I was always attempting to eat more salads as a weight-loss measure, but honestly, we ate things like hamburger helper and Little Debbies on occassion. When we had kids, providing them with a healthy diet and making sure they learned healthy eating became a big priority for us. We did lots of reading on the topic…highly recommend anything by Michael Pollan, esp. "In Defense of Food". Since kids follow by example and my normally slim hubby had gained a little weight on those processed and sugary foods, we improved both our own and our kids diet together. We cut out instant and processed foods, we rarely eat fast food and when we do there are only a couple of places we will eat and are selective from their menu for healthier options. I have cut out all soda (I think I was a diet coke addict). My hubby still drinks 2-3 Coke Zeros a week, but still a major reduction for him. We always make sure that we have 2-3 different fruits and veggies at each meal, some raw, some cooked. We also only eat whole grain products, when we eat grains, which we have limited in our diet.

    So, my problem with school lunch and breakfast is the quality of the food. I would love to get an extra 30 minutes sleep and not have to prepare breakfast and pack lunch for my girls, but I can't being myself to let them eat what the school serves. I KNOW that if they eat chocolate milk and sugary ceral for b'fast everyday and then hot dogs and fries for lunch everyday, they will not be healthy. I want my kids healthy, but I also want ALL the kids healthy. So, give kids free food, but make it healthy food, apples, real oatmeal, real scrambled eggs, bananas, white milk, oranges, cherry tomatoes, carrots, grilled chicken, roasted sweet potatoes, spinach, beans, etc. not processed crap.

    I think what some people missed is that some of of us want not just food for all kids but GOOD FOOD for all kids. Please make school food better so I can allow my kids to eat it. They are kindergarteners and really want to do the whole "go through the line with a tray" thing with their classmates, but everytime I look at the menu, I think "Oh, not today." So, they have only eaten school lunch 4 times this year, and I was present all of those times to make sure they chose the healthier option and got unflavored milk.

    So, please do feed kids that are hungry, but feed them real food and not chocolate milk and poptarts. All that sugar is just sentencing them to a future as a diabetic. If they don't have health insurance, you may be doing more harm than good with your breakfast pastries.

  31. I am a new teacher. I started my first full time job this year and I have been appalled at the lack of healthy choices for my students. I spent a lot of time wondering why there were always pop tart wrappers around the school (9-12th grade). Then I realized that is what most of my students are eating for breakfast. A pack of poptarts and a small thing of juice. Many of them compliment this with pizza for lunch-that is offered every day, with fries (and a trip through the salad bar that most kids don't take)!

    I am far from a "healthy eater" myself. I struggle with making good decisions, but try to improve what I eat little by little. It horrifies me that my students are given horrible food everyday at school and then are sent home to horrible or no food at home. They will never make healthy choices if these breakfasts are what pass as "healthy" by government standards.

  32. I think "generational poverty" is a topic worth discussing. Perhaps if we fed the children living in poverty better food, and offered them additional educational resources, they wouldn't grow up to have children themselves as teenagers, wouldn't repeat their parent's mistakes. But since we feed them crap and don't want to pay taxes to support quality education for all children, we don't break that cycle.

    There are so many ways in which paying a significant amount in taxes now could cut our children's tax bill in the future, but we're never willing to make those difficult political decisions.

  33. Not gonna lie, I'm kind of shocked by how many of you would think of me as a bad or unfit parent because I'm poor. My son and I receive food stamps, he eats breakfast at school every weekday, and I am also a good mother. These things aren't mutually exclusive.

  34. Had lunch with my kids today at school. We packed out lunch, but the school lunch was: choice of fried steak fingers or grilled cheese sandwich (American on white bread), with smiley fries, and a dinner roll. The kids had the option of getting baby carrots or apples off the salad bar, but few did. Almost all kids chose chocolate milk instead of white.

    So, fried steak fingers, smiley fries, a roll, and chocolate milk… I guess I am elitist for hoping that the schools could provide something slightly healthier. It is pure simple carbs.

    Kids won't choose healthy things like carrots, apples, white milk even if they are provided without guidance.

  35. The quality of your fuel will determine whether you run likely a smoothly oiled machine or limp along like a rusty old beater. We are putting sugar in our kids' gas tanks.

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