Ending hunger in the classroom

When the national child anti-hunger organization Share Our Strength polled America’s middle-school teachers in 2011, two-thirds said they taught children who regularly came to school too hungry to learn.

Studies show that children who eat breakfast tend to perform better on standardized tests, make fewer mistakes in math, and show a general increase in math and reading scores. They also generally have fewer discipline problems and visit school nurses’ offices less often. Parents want to provide their kids a nutritious breakfast at home but the reality is that unique barriers keep them from doing so. Whether it is limited food budgets, challenges with early work schedules and transportation, or children who won’t eat early in the morning, too many students head to the classroom on an empty stomach.

The federally-funded School Breakfast Program, which is offered in nearly all public schools across the state (similar to the National School Lunch Program), offers eligible kids a nutritious free or reduced-price breakfast at school so they can start their day off right. But of the more than 246,000 Arkansas kids who ate free or reduced-price lunch in 2011, less than 133,000 kids, or 53 percent, participated in the School Breakfast Program. With so many eligible kids missing out on school breakfast and our state missing out on already allocated federal funding for this program, we have to look at why there is such a gap in participation.

Most schools across Arkansas serve breakfast in the cafeteria, similar to lunch, but what we have seen is that changing the way schools serve breakfast often makes it easier for them to get it and reduces barriers such as stigma and getting to school too late to eat breakfast in the cafeteria. That’s why this week, as part of National School Breakfast Week which is organized by the School Nutrition Association, the Arkansas No Kid Hungry Campaign, a partnership between Share Our Strength, Gov. Mike Beebe and the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, is working to raise awareness about the importance of the School Breakfast Program and calling on leaders to look at new ways of serving students breakfast.

As a signal of his support for National School Breakfast Week and the School Breakfast Program, Gov. Beebe has also signed a proclamation declaring that no child in Arkansas should ever go hungry and that school breakfast is a key part of that.

Over the past two years, the Arkansas No Kid Hungry Campaign has been working with schools to look at creative ways of serving breakfast so that more students can participate. These models include Breakfast in the Classroom where kids eat breakfast as part of their instructional time, as well as Grab N’ Go where kids quickly grab their breakfast and eat it in their classrooms. Both have shown to increase participation in school breakfast. So far, these programs have been successful.

With leadership from Gov. Beebe and First Lady Beebe, along with support from Walmart, Tysons and others, we are seeing more kids eating school breakfast so they are ready to learn. At a time when more than 28 percent of Arkansas kids are living in poverty and more than 200,000 are at risk of hunger, families simply cannot do it alone. Connecting kids to the School Breakfast Program through innovative ways of serving breakfast is an important tool in making sure kids are surrounded by healthy food, every day. You can help.

Learn more about our work to connect kids to school breakfast and what you can do by going to www.NoKidHungry.org/Arkansas.

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Joyce Hardy is director of the Arkansas No Kid Hungry Campaign