Written by Andrew McNamee, Manager of Public Policy and Caitlin Duncan, Grants Management Specialist
A day at school should be filled with educational challenges and social growth. But for the roughly eight percent of American children living with food insecurity, the day usually begins with hunger. The hunger stalks them throughout their childhoods. It affects their ability to focus and learn, their prospects, even their physical growth. While their friends return from summer break with stories of family vacations, sports practices, and summer camps, food insecure children have no such stories to tell. Instead, they are relieved to be back where free and reduced-price school lunches help them recover from months of inconsistent meals, as well as sometimes feeling like a burden to their family. This is how poverty and related food insecurity psychologically traumatize children for life, and it’s happening on a massive scale. Their chronic hunger affects their education, their social opportunities and sense of self –- even their physical development.
This is why the USDA’s School Breakfast Program (SBP) is so important. Research has found that providing breakfast to students has a positive effect on their academic achievement- but the benefits extend beyond that. Busy parents can get relief in the early morning when they know there is a nutritious, affordable meal available at school. Kids have the freedom to be kids when their bellies are full and they can think about games and lessons instead of where to get their next meal.
However, not all school districts offer breakfast through SBP. The program reimburses states that offer school breakfast, but participation is optional. Moreover, the number of students eating free or reduced-price school breakfasts is often far below the number of eligible students, especially when breakfast is served before the bell and many students have not yet arrived at school.
State-level efforts are underway to change this. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf (D) has proposed a $2 million investment in the state’s school breakfast programs in his 2017-2018 budget proposal. A bill introduced in the Massachusetts state legislature would require schools that have at least 60% of their students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals, under the federal National School Lunch Program, to offer their students free breakfast. Feed the Children applauds these changes as a step towards achieving a hunger-free childhood for all children.
Some school districts have made efforts to integrate breakfast service into the school day, including ‘School Breakfast Weeks’ that introduce refreshments and socialization into breakfast programs. Or, instead of serving breakfast before school in a separate room, some districts have introduced food carts that serve students in their classrooms and integrate breakfast into the school day. Feed the Children encourages such innovative efforts to make consistent meals the norm.
Not sure how to get school breakfast started at your local schools? For those who would like to initiate school breakfast or expand on existing programs, the USDA provides a toolkit for parents, educators, administrators, and everyday concerned citizens to assist in this goal, called Energize Your Day with School Breakfast. This toolkit offers suggestions for engaging community stakeholders and for taking concrete action toward bringing nutritious, affordable breakfast to more school-aged children.