Hungry for change

Christine Tran, a Ph.D. student in the College of Education, is peeling back the complex issues surrounding hunger in our nation’s schools.


When Christine Tran was a new teacher in Los Angeles, the most significant hurdle to her students’ learning was one that she hadn’t expected: hunger. Although almost all of her students qualified for free school lunch, a majority refused to eat it.

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“Some students talk about school food like it’s that ‘Simpsons’ mystery meat,” she says, and they skip lunch or eat junk food instead. And then there’s social stigma: In many schools, students call it “prison food” — a nod, in some cases, to personal experiences, or to friends or family members who have actually been to prison. At Tran’s school, bullies would often make fun of students who ate school lunch until they, too, stopped eating, preferring hunger to ridicule.


All of this surprised Tran, because she had a very different experience when she grew up, a low-income student herself. The daughter of Vietnamese refugees, Tran was a self-professed “free-lunch kid.” Free meals and other social policies had helped her on her path to success, but why were they failing her students?

Today, she is trying to get to the heart of this question as a UW Ph.D. candidate in the College of Education, with a focus on educational policy, organizations and leadership. Her goal: to close the gap between policy and practice.

Tran is working with UW faculty and graduate students from disciplines as diverse as social work, museology and public health, immersing herself in mixed-method research that is helping her untangle such a complex issue. “How does everything fit, and how can we work together to address the disparities in the system?” she asks. “I can’t separate good food and good education. In order to have both, we need to talk about both.”

One reason Tran came to the UW was the abundance of opportunities to connect children to nutrition and a sense of community: integral pieces of the puzzle. She supplements her education by volunteering as an educational leader at the Pike Place Market Education Program, where she teaches local schoolchildren about community history, social services, small businesses, local agriculture and diverse foods.

“My friends joke that Pike Place Market is my graduate minor,” she says. “I think they’re right. It’s so much of a part of my educational experience. Reconnecting with kids reminds me why I’m doing all of this to begin with.”

Tran’s hard work is paying off, earning her several fellowships and even the Congressional Hunger Center Alumni Leadership Award, which she recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to accept. She is happy with the publicity she gets, she says, but only because it helps others understand and care about an issue that is so important to her.

A teacher at heart, she is a natural at finding ways to help others understand the importance of her mission. She recalls a time years ago when she worked at the Latino Policy Forum in Chicago and was at a career fair, trying to explain policy work to schoolchildren. She used an analogy:

“Have you ever played a game that was unfair, that you always lose?”

The kids had. Not surprisingly, they didn’t like losing.

“That’s what policy is about,” said Tran. “It’s about changing the rules of the game so that everyone can win.”

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