Most kids starting kindergarten in Oakland public schools are not ready for the demands of school.

What’s in their way? Hunger. Hunger and tiredness and illness, according to a report released this month. Here in America, in Oakland, hunger and its related afflictions are hindering kids.

In a detailed statistical report called Oakland Achieves, the Great Oakland Public Schools Leadership Center and the Urban Strategies Council look at everything from graduation rates to state test scores to third grade reading to kindergarten readiness. It’s that last that’s among the most startling.

Fewer than half of children entering kindergarten are considered “ready.” Only 40 percent have the pre-academic skills, as well as abilities in social expression, self-care and self-regulation to be ready for classroom learning. It is partly because of a shortage of preschool opportunities here.

Even more basically, however, their unpreparedness is about not getting enough nutrition and sleep. Among “factors strongly associated with school readiness” the report states that whether a child comes to school “hungry, tired or ill” was twice as important as the next most important factor.

from the Oakland Achieves report

From the Oakland Achieves report

That hunger is such a big issue would seem strange except for the line of people visible at the food pantry on 36th and San Pablo or at the St. Vincent de Paul’s mid-day meal.

On a recent afternoon, five-year-old Abria and her sister Asha were in line with their mother, Regina. Their mother makes sure her girls get three meals a day, but since they have no kitchen in the shelter where they live, it is a huge strategic effort involving traveling around the city and spending hours in lines or walking. “The Lord provides, so we can’t complain,” Regina said.

Over on San Pablo and 36th, the line goes 77 people deep as another soon-to-be kindergartener, Venessa, and her mother, Ronnie, wait for their turn to get free groceries. It’s a long wait that will take all of that afternoon.

“For breakfast, we have food from WIC (the Women Infants and Children federal nutrition program),” Ronnie explains and her children can get lunch at school. But summer is more challenging.

The line at the food pantry at 36th and San Pablo

The line at the food pantry at 36th and San Pablo

Bright-eyed and clearly athletic as she does acrobatics from the line, Abria is not hungry. But what if her mother were not willing to make such efforts? According to teachers, some parents are not.

Teacher Emma Coufal, who has been teaching kindergarten at Allendale Elementary in Oakland for the last three years, said that she sees these problems every day.

“We have a lot of students who come to school too tired,” she said. “We just have to let them sleep or they won’t function. They sleep at their desk or on a beanbag chair in the library.”

Other kids are malnourished, a first-world form of hunger. “A lot of our kids eat poor food, like spicy chips and candy. It is hard to focus on learning when coming down from a sugar high,” she said. One of her students was found to have a high lead content in his blood from something he was eating.

Allendale serves both breakfast and lunch to all its students. But if students arrive at school too late for breakfast, they are also typically unfed, and listless or restless.

That hunger is an issue is not lost on the school district. Food programs have become a significant operation of Oakland Unified School District, which serves 21,500 lunches, 8,500 breakfasts, 8,400 snacks and 500 dinners every day to its students.

Recognizing the influence of hunger and nutrition, and how breakfast influences a child’s day, it serves breakfast at 75 of it 86 schools. It organizes fruit and vegetable farmers markets at 22 school sites and has launched a farm-to-school program, so that most of its produce is farmed in Northern California.

Once children are old enough to attend school regularly, they may have more regular access to nutritious food.

Jennifer LeBarre, Director of Nutrition Services, is well aware of the role hunger and nutrition play in academic success. To make the point, she asks adults if they’ve ever had to get through a workday without eating–or even had to show up at a morning meeting without breakfast, and to think about how unfocused and irritable most people are in such situations.

Read the full Oakland Achieves report here.  Partner organizations contributing to the report, which was authored by Urban Strategies Council staff, include First 5 Alameda County, the Oakland Public Education Fund, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the YMCA of the East Bay, the Oakland Unified School District Department of  Quality, Accountability and Analytics, the College Access Foundation, and the California Endowment and the Rogers Family Foundation.

About The Author

Barbara Grady is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can reach her at

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