Schools are the primary social institution that protects all children’s well-being. While most school administrators say the right thing — like all children should have enough to eat if they are to succeed in school; how they put rhetoric into action may vary a lot. We can see it in the way some schools approach free lunch; too many children are learning early in life that there is no such thing.

Children with sufficient resources don’t apply for school meal programs. Hungry children for whom free school lunch is the only meal they will receive in a day may forgo it because the socio-emotional costs are too high. Some public schools, like those in Salem, Massachusetts, have a district-wide policy where all children get free meals. Studies show that students learn better when they have something nutritious to eat, but instead of providing them with free breakfast and lunch, some school districts use draconian measures to scare non-compliant families into paying up. Instead of seeing the situation of families who can’t pay for their children’s lunch as a sign of poverty, collection agencies around the country are used to hold poor families accountable if they can’t pay for their section of the free lunch. In Pennsylvania, parents have been told their children could be removed and put into foster care if parents owed ten dollars or more in school lunch fees. A New Hampshire lunch-lady was fired because she gave a student a free lunch. Even more, Minnesota threatened to withhold diplomas from graduating students who had outstanding lunch debt; and in Cherry Hill, NJ, a community with a median income of $105,786, their “ tuna gate” regulation would have the district serves only a tuna fish sandwich to students whose accounts are $10 in arrears and deny a student any food at all when their debt reaches $20. Sadly, as seventy-five percent of schools report student meal debt, a typical school response is to shame students for their inability to pay.

If well-educated and well-intentioned school officials and board members take a step back, they might see that uncollected lunch money is their least problem. Abject poverty and widespread homelessness are more significant indicators, but those symptoms are ignored. First Focus, a national bipartisan child advocacy organization, challenged this trend by raising a systemic concern: “lunch debt — and the shaming that results — is a systemic problem, and ad hoc acts of charity are not enough to fix it. Instead, we should be asking deeper questions: why does school lunch debt exist in the first place? How can we provide healthy food to all students?”

Poverty, hunger, and homelessness go hand in hand. The trouble is, most believe the word “homeless” applies to the bedraggled adults seen wandering the streets of big cities across America. Nothing could be further from the truth, but it’s something that even departments of the federal government choose to ignore. In fact, millions more of children and youth, from newborns to Generation Z, experience homelessness than the stereotypical adult.

The denial of extensive homelessness is epidemic and systemic. The federal agency overseeing most of our nation’s homeless services, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), appears to have tried to eliminate homelessness by defining it out of existence. Their standards for “qualifying” as homeless eliminate the bulk of families, youth on their own, and adults. This isn’t a recent phenomenon. In 2007, Congress heard testimony to urge a definition alignment that would sync HUD’s standard with the US Department of Education’s definition of homelessness , which did not occur. Since then, the bipartisan Homeless Children and Youth Act has been introduced and summarily ignored. The number of students identified in our nation’s elementary and high schools has soared, doubling, to the astonishing number of 1.3 million in 2018.

Keep in mind that even the schools’ homeless census is extremely under-counted. Students and families are embarrassed to admit they are homeless; shame and fear are among the reasons for their reticence. Some families don’t realize they qualify under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act for assistance, and students are denied life-saving benefits as a result. Some schools don’t pick up on telltale signs of housing instability: irregular attendance, hunger, reluctance to discuss housing, or lack of documents for registration.

HUD requires that communities conduct a biennial “Point in Time” (PIT) count. They recently reported in their Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress that there are 553,000 homeless people nationwide. The National Law Center on Poverty and Homelessness offered an extensive critique of HUD’s PIT count and found that HUD numbers grossly undercount students, which confirms higher counts by the Department of Education enumerations. Funding and policy decisions rest on the results of numbers, and as this pertains to homeless children, their under-counts result in lack of support programs and aid, including food.

Looking at the intersection of hunger and homelessness, consider a trend well-illustrated in data produced by the state of New Jersey. They report that 450,000 poor students receive free lunch. A conservative indicator of the relationship between free lunch and homelessness is ten percent. If 10% of the students on free lunch were homeless, one would expect at least 45,000 students would be identified as such. But the state of NJ reported that only 12,000 students experience homelessness. Thus, New Jersey misses an estimated 33,000 students experiencing homelessness in their count. This does take into account the number of students who are in housing distress who don’t meet the official definition of homelessness, which would otherwise be even higher.

Why is this important? While hunger gets in the way of student success, homelessness makes it much harder. Students who experience homelessness and extreme poverty struggle to succeed in school; they don’t get sufficient sleep, they may be hungry, they may lack adequate clean clothing, and they may have physical and mental health issues that prevent them from succeeding. If they identify as homeless, they could qualify for a wide range of support, especially if the Congress passes the Homeless Children and Youth Act. Problems paying for free lunch are reflective of the much deeper, more severe problems of poverty and homelessness that we want to keep out of sight and out of mind.

“Who performs well when hungry or homeless?” Teachers ask And students do too. It’s a problem that we already have a solution for: food and stable housing. These fundamental human rights can save lives, families, futures, and be very cost-effective in the long-run.

Yvonne Vissing, Ph.D., is the founding director of the Center for Childhood & Youth Studies at Salem State University, and pediatric and community sociologist, and the US child rights policy chair for the international Hope for Children UN Convention on the Rights of the Child Policy Center in Cyprus.

Diane Nilan is the founder/president of HEAR US Inc., and a writer, documentary filmmaker, and producer. She is in the midst of HEAR US 2020 VisionQuest, a 9,000 mile, 25-state homelessness awareness-raising tour.