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.”
Underscoring the crucial impact a healthy breakfast can have, a 2013 study done by Deloitte for No Kid Hungry found that kids who have regular access to breakfast score 17.5 percent higher on standardized math tests.
Breakfast and lunch programs in schools are making great strides in attacking childhood hunger, but a huge gap remains. According to No Kid Hungry, a quarter of all low-income parents worry their kids don’t have enough to eat between school lunch and breakfast the next day; and three out of four public school teachers say students regularly come to school hungry. Increasingly, advocates are focusing on programs that ensure kids have enough to eat when they are not in school, and after school and summer meal programs are on the rise.
In my home state of New Hampshire, a mother and 20-year veteran of the Navy saw a need to feed kids on the weekends, and founded the organization End 68 Hours of Hunger. Back in 2010, Claire Bloom was at a book club meeting in her affluent town of Dover, when a teacher in attendance mentioned that she had students who went from lunch on Friday to breakfast on Monday with nothing to eat.
“I was appalled; absolutely stunned and appalled,” Bloom, 70, told me recently, adding that she never dreamed there was poverty in her community.
She went to the school and offered to “throw some money” at the problem, and was told that they didn’t need money. They needed someone to create a program to pack food to send home with kids on Fridays. Without blinking an eye, Bloom took on the project. She enlisted volunteers, found a place to store and pack food, partnered with grocery stores, and figured out how to create three dinners, two lunches and two breakfasts for under $10.
The concept is remarkably simple. Volunteers pack knapsacks with meals for the weekend for one child, and the knapsacks are left outside the classroom. Students in the program pick them up on their way out the door, and drop the empty bags off on Monday mornings. School nurses identify children in need and contact parents privately.
In 2011 Bloom delivered 19 knapsacks to three elementary schools in Dover. Today her organization operates in eight states and more than 40 communities, and is still growing. The nonprofit has an annual budget of $1.1 million made up entirely from monetary and food donations. Everyone involved, including Bloom, is a volunteer, and one hundred percent of donated funds are used to feed at-risk children.
Other organizations run backpack programs, but I find Bloom’s story particularly inspiring because it begins with one mother caring about someone else’s children. And all the statistics in the world fail to convey the urgency and heartbreak of the issue as powerfully as Bloom’s recollection of what happened in the first school she worked with in Dover.
“The school nurse called a 6-year-old girl into the office and explained the program. She took out a bag and showed her the food. The little girl reached out with both arms, grabbed the backpack and hugged it. She didn’t want to let it go.”
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Jaimie Seaton is a freelance writer and journalist. She tweets @JaimieSeaton