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Reading, writing and hunger: More than 13 million kids in this country go to school hungry

By: Jaimie Seaton, The Washington Post
March 11, 2017 Updated: March 11, 2017 at 8:18 pm
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Every once in a while my teenage son gets in the car after school and complains that he didn’t get enough to eat at lunch, so struggled through the last period with a raging headache and inability to concentrate. The next morning, he gets eggs for breakfast and I pack him a double lunch, loading up on protein snacks like peanuts and cheese. I don’t want anything to impede his ability to learn, least of all an empty stomach.

Unfortunately, for over 13 million kids in this country, going to school hungry is the norm. One in five children in the United States live in food insecure households, which means they lack consistent access to enough food.

“There are food insecure and hungry kids in every Congressional district and every demographic,” says Lucy Melcher, the director of advocacy and government relations for the nonprofit Share Our Strength, which runs the No Kid Hungry campaign. “Food insecurity is a family that has enough money to buy groceries three out of four weeks; it’s a mom skipping dinner; it’s having to choose between buying groceries and paying rent.”

Being hungry has an enormous impact on a student’s ability to learn, so much so that Melcher characterizes food as a basic school supply, akin to textbooks and pencils. Kids who go to school hungry may suffer an inability to concentrate and often fall behind academically. Hungry kids are more likely to miss school because of illness, and more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, and develop behavioral problems as teenagers. They are more liable to drop out before graduation, which leads to lower paying jobs and a greater probability of being food insecure adults.

There’s a lot of potential being squandered because kids are going to school hungry and the ramifications go beyond a growling stomach.

“Education is very important to grow businesses, and to grow the economy,” said Virginia’s first lady, Dorothy McAuliffe. “Making sure every child has the full opportunity of education and success is part of a larger picture.” I spoke with McAuliffe just days before she co-moderated a plenary session entitled Ending Childhood Hunger: Improving Lives and Investing in America’s Future at the National Governors Association Winter Meeting in Washington, D.C.

“Children going without is something my husband and I have thought about since our first baby was born, from the very beginning of being parents,” said McAuliffe, a mother of five, who says she is using her political platform to attack the issue of childhood hunger, and is chair of the No Kid Hungry Virginia campaign.

In 2015, the state of Virginia received a grant of $8.8 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to run a two-year pilot project to reach food insecure kids. It was the largest dollar amount awarded of five grants, and McAuliffe says she hopes the state — which is working with numerous organizations — can become a national model for ending childhood hunger.

Schools are ground zero in the fight. McAuliffe said she believes schools have the best, most scalable, sustainable and practical way to end childhood hunger because they are anchors in the community.

Currently, 22 million students across the country rely on reduced-price or free school lunches through the National School Lunch Program (funded by the USDA). More than half that number relies on free or reduced-price breakfasts, which Melcher says reaches about 56 percent of the kids in need. That’s a record high, according to a recent study, but Melcher says there is still a long way to go.

Traditionally, breakfast has been served before school hours in the cafeteria, which excludes large numbers of eligible students who aren’t able to arrive early, and can be humiliating to those who participate. The big push among advocates is incorporating breakfast into the school day.

McAuliffe described what she called an alternative breakfast, which can take a variety of forms. There’s breakfast in the classroom, grab and go models, and a second-chance breakfast between first and second periods.

“There is tremendous stigma of children going into a cafeteria before the bell,” said McAuliffe, “whereas with the alternative breakfast model, it normalizes it, creates community in the classroom around a meal, and starts the day off strong.”

Read the full story at The Washington Post.

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