"They Need to Know They're Safe and That I Love Them"

Allie Kistner teaches first grade at an elementary school in southwest Virginia, in a working-class community where almost every child qualifies for free lunch. Two years ago, her school started serving breakfast after the bell, as well as providing an afterschool meal before the children went home for the day.

In this interview, Allie talks about what her students’ lives are like and what the school serving three meals a day has meant for them. (It has been edited for length and clarity.)

Allie Kistner

What appeals to you about working with kids who face challenges like the ones your students face?

It's a calling, to teach here at our school. If you're here, then you really want to be here. All the teachers here could be anywhere else, but it's a choice. It's a choice to be here.

After being here for [11 years] and seeing the impact that I've made, I've realized that this is where I need to be. It was kind of chosen for me to be here. I feel like I have an obligation to be here, to really work with these kids and see them through.

What are some of the challenges that your students here are facing that maybe they wouldn't be facing at a more affluent school?

I guess maybe some of the hurdles that they have, or struggles that they have, that maybe are not prominent in other schools … it’s just the poverty. 

That could be lack of food, lack of heat, lack of water, lack of clothing, shelter. You know, we have some who are in homes without electricity right now, and without water right now.

They have that stress at home, and that stress just will follow them here. 

What are the challenges that you face that teachers might not face in other schools?

I have a few students who I already know [are] coming from trauma or they're coming from a stressful situation. 

I kind of have to be on call, ready to take care of whatever need that they're going to come in with. So if they're coming in from trauma, I can usually see it on their face, or I can usually see that they've just come out of bed and they've just walked right in, because they've not been taken care of or, you know, they're in the same clothes that they wore yesterday. We have a lot of that.

I can also tell if they're coming in from maybe a stressful domestic situation at home. I can just give them a little snuggle and say, "I'm so glad that you're here. You look so pretty today. I've got a surprise for you later."

When they're here with me for that seven-and-a-half hours, it's my job to put them in a world where they don't have that stress. I'm able to remove them from that situation at home and do my job, which is teach them how to read and write, and also provide them with a safe environment. 

Because a lot of them just need to know that they're safe and that I love them.

How do the food programs here at school fit into that?

The food program has really provided a sense of consistency and a sense of security in their lives. In the past, before we had our [afterschool] meal, our students would be kind of getting a little anxious at the end of the day, and I don't think they were able to process why they were getting so anxious.

And then a couple of weeks [after we started serving afterschool meals], I saw that anxiety coming back, and, you know, I couldn't figure out why they were so anxious. I would get the question, "Ms. Kistner, are we having third meal today? When's third meal going to be here? Is it still coming? When are we getting third meal?"

And I realized they're stressing out at the thought of not getting third meal, because they're so used to that inconsistency at home. 

And so, you know, we added third meal to our visual schedule of the day so that they knew third meal's coming. It's on our schedule, so, you know, we never switch from our schedule. It's coming. It's going to be here. 

As soon as they knew that I wasn't going to let them down, the cafeteria wasn't going to let them down, then they took a deep breath and they had a sigh of relief.

Those kids that are from more challenging home lives, and the kids who maybe need a little more, what are their nights like? What are they eating at home?

Once I was reading [my students] a book called “Cooking with Mom”. To have them make a connection to the story that we were reading, I asked them: "What sort of things do you like to cook at home? What do you cook at home? What do you like to eat?"

And so, you know, everybody at the table were giving their answers, [but] one just couldn't answer the question. And I said, "Well, what did you have last night for dinner?" and she said, "I didn't have dinner last night." 

I didn't want to draw any kind of negative attention to that in the group, So I switched it real quick to "Well, what is your favorite thing to eat?" we continued the lesson and moved on. Then later, I sat beside her and said, "Hey, you know, I just wanted to ask you about your answer in small group today. Did you not get any dinner last night?" 

And she told me that there wasn't a meal, that instead she went to the closet and pulled out a bag of popcorn, and she made a bag of microwave popcorn for her and her brother, and that that was her dinner. 

And I asked her if that was kind of a typical thing. You know, "Is that something that you usually do? You usually have to make a bag of popcorn or find something on your own?" And she said that yeah, that was pretty typical, that that was something that she regularly does for her and her brother. 

Do you ever have conversations with people who don't approve of the meals programs at your school? Sometimes people say: "That's the parents' job, not the school's job." 

I think at the beginning of our [afterschool] meal program we may have had more people with that negative attitude. But now that we're two years in, they now see the benefit. And it's my personal opinion that it's not the child's fault if they don't get their dinner at home.

So whenever I do come across somebody that might have that negative opinion, it's my job to kindly educate them, and I do it in a kind way. And they might be receptive to that, and then it just might make them more angry. And if that's the case then I know that I can't change their opinion.

But when I hear those negative opinions, it doesn't impact me. Because I know that it's making a difference, because I see it and I have my families tell me that it's making a difference. They're going home full, they're going home happy. So I sleep better at night.