Five years ago, Share Our Strength CEO Billy Shore began to wonder why the number of hungry kids in the US hadn’t declined significantly since 1984, when he and his sister founded the anti-hunger organization.
“We knew that it wasn’t because we lack food as a nation—we obviously enjoy an abundance,” said Shore, speaking with reporters in New York City at the release of a new report from Share Our Strength and Deloitte, “Ending Childhood Hunger: A Social Impact Analysis.” He was joined by US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, actor and longtime anti-hunger activist Jeff Bridges and others. “And it wasn’t because we lack food or nutrition programs—we have school lunch and school breakfast, SNAP, WIC and others. So we felt it had to be because children weren’t accessing those programs.”
Shore said the extent to which children don’t access food nutrition programs is best described by “the big gap” between the 21 million low-income students who receive a free school lunch—all of whom are eligible for free breakfast—and the 11 million who eat school breakfast.
“So just a little over 50 percent of the kids who are eligible actually get the breakfast that they really need to perform well in school and be healthy kids,” said Shore.
Shore and Bridges began traveling across the country as part of Share Our Strength’s “No Kid Hungry” campaign to speak with governors about “how to knock down the barriers in their states to get more kids enrolled.”
“Both Democrats and Republicans want to do the right thing when they hear of the problem, the solution and that the resources are there to implement the solution,” said Shore, noting that the funding comes largely from the federal government.
They new report shows the dramatic effect that the School Breakfast Program can have on children’s academic, health and economic futures. It notes that in 2011, nearly 15 percent of US households were “food insecure,” or at-risk of hunger. Households with children were nearly twice as likely to be food insecure as households without children. As a result, more than one out of five kids struggled with hunger. When Share Our Strength surveyed 1,000 K-through-8 teachers—evenly divided between rural, urban and suburban schools—three out of five said they have students in their classrooms that regularly come to school hungry.
The study makes the costs of food insecurity clear: In early childhood, it’s associated with impaired brain development and more frequent hospitalizations. Across children of all ages, it’s linked with lower academic achievement. Hungry children are 31 percent more likely to be hospitalized, at a cost of $12,000 per pediatric hospitalization.
In contrast, the new research demonstrates that students who participate in the School Breakfast Program attend 1.5 more days of school annually, score 17.5 percent higher on math tests, and are less likely to have disciplinary issues. The study concludes that if just 70 percent of kids eating a free- or reduced-price lunch were also eating school breakfast, the potential national impact would be 3.2 million more students per year achieving better scores on standardized math tests; 4.8 million fewer school absences a year; and, as a result of greater attendance and higher achievement, 807,000 more students graduating from high school.
According to the study, high school graduates typically earn $10,090 more annually and are half as likely to experience poverty and hunger as an adult than non-high school graduates.
“Just when everyone thinks that we can’t afford to invest in programs like these, the report shows that we can’t afford not to,” said Shore. “Because the long-term benefits are so strong, so compelling, so good for kids, so good for the economy and schools, it enables us to look at this issue through a different lens.”
The No Kid Hungry campaign is now working directly with schools to increase breakfast participation. The traditional school breakfast is served in the cafeteria before school begins. It’s often difficult for low-income students—particularly those who rely on public transportation—to arrive early enough to eat. Additionally, there is a social stigma associated with being “one of the poor kids” eating breakfast in the cafeteria. So, the campaign provides technical assistance and small grants to help schools work on alternative models that make breakfast part of the school day, including in the classroom.
Lesley-Anne Jones, a fifth grade teacher at PS 158 in Brooklyn, said that her school has a breakfast program from 7:30-8:00, and that too many students are unable to arrive in time to take advantage of it. With the help of Share Our Strength, the school implemented a breakfast in the classroom program for kindergarten and first grades. When her fifth grade students come to school hungry, Jones tells them to go to the younger classrooms and grab “a bag of breakfast.”
“Before the program, kids would come in hungry and some would be a little sluggish and say that their stomach hurts—they didn’t realize their stomach hurt because they were hungry,” said Jones. “Now, they get their breakfast, they’re good to go: it helps with discipline problems, focusing, state exams.”
She noted that prior to this program, teachers would bring in breakfast for the students on the day of state exams, knowing that a meal would help their performance. She would like to see the program expanded to include every grade at her pre-K through fifth grade school.
The collaboration between Share Our Strength and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley perhaps presents the clearest case of what can be achieved by increasing school breakfast participation. Since 2011, more than 130 Maryland schools are in the process of moving breakfast from the cafeteria into the classroom. Student participation in the program increased from 46 percent of eligible students in September 2010 to 56 percent in September 2012.
“So the state has added 33,000 kids in the last two years, and has 57,000 to go to get to where we should be. The governor is absolutely confident we’re going to get there,” said Shore.
The study suggests that the program can have the greatest impact on students in high-poverty schools who are at the greatest risk of food insecurity. In Maryland, students in schools with 80 percent low-income students that moved breakfast into the classroom were 6 percent less likely to be chronically absent than similar schools with a traditional school breakfast model; and there were nearly 10 percent more students in these schools achieving math proficiency than in similar schools with traditional breakfast models.
The report indeed offers a clear and compelling vision of what can be achieved by making the most of one tool to fight hunger. It caused me to reflect on then-candidate Barack Obama’s pledge in 2008 to end childhood hunger by 2015. Since that time, many anti-hunger advocates have been left wondering: Where exactly is that comprehensive plan?
I posed that question to Secretary Vilsack, and he suggested that “the plan is already in action” at the USDA, citing expansion and improvement of the WIC program; an expanded SNAP program; education initiatives to help families “stretch SNAP dollars” expansion of summer food programs; and food desert reductions through the Healthy Food Financing Initiative.
“From the earliest moment of a child’s life, we’ve made a concerted effort to expand and improve nutrition programs,” said Vilsack.
I pressed the secretary that there is nevertheless no identifiable administration plan people can look to and recognize as the way to end childhood hunger by 2015—an outline of the tools, the costs, the benefits—a clear vision that people can rally around.
“Part of the challenge—the fact that nobody knows about all of this [that we are doing]—unless Jeff Bridges is sitting at the table, if instead I showed up alone here—you all wouldn’t be here,” said Vilsack. “The Agricultural Department is not able to access the mainstream media the way an Oscar-winning entertainer can.”
But I’m going to hazard a guess that if President Obama held a press conference to lay out his plan on how we could end childhood hunger—or even cut it in half—the media would show up and the nation would pay attention.
Kudos to Share Our Strength for demonstrating the importance of one of the nation’s best tools. The campaign is now building a network of advocates around the country that is contacting schools to ask if and how they are serving breakfast. You can get information about your own community here.
“I like to think there’s a larger potential significance with this campaign, too,” Shore told me. “In this era of such deep polarization, a little bit of progress could inspire more in the larger field of poverty where so many are skeptical that results are possible. Governor O’Malley said to me that ‘small things done well make large things possible.’”
President Obama isn’t the only one who could do more on poverty. Read Greg Kaufmann’s takedown of Jeff Sessions.