GROWING UP IN POVERTY is one of the greatest threats there can be to a child’s ability to thrive and grow. Financial stress and not having family resources for healthy food, decent housing or other essentials impede children’s cognitive development and their ability to learn.
You don’t have to look far to see it. All across the United States—in cities like Detroit and Flint, Mich., Washington, D.C., and my hometown of Baltimore—our children, our babies, are living in poverty and coming to school with empty bellies.
I spend quite a bit of time in classrooms talking to educators, and when you bring up the School Breakfast Program, you can see their faces light up. For them, this program, which started as a pilot in 1966 and has steadily grown in scale and reputation since then, is a lifeline for the students and families they serve each and every day.
From my time as a teacher’s assistant in the early ’60s through today, the School Breakfast Program has improved the odds for our children living in poverty and has significantly lessened the impact of childhood food insecurity. Our members take very seriously their role in ensuring the success of school breakfast programs because they know they can be the difference between a focused child who is ready to learn and one who is lethargic and struggling with hunger pangs. Because of their commitment, they’re trying innovative ways to serve their students—for example, through grab-and-go meals or hallway breakfast bars with fresh fruit.
During this past National School Breakfast Week in March, I was thrilled to join the Food Research and Action Center and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in expressing the AFT’s love for school breakfast. As we outlined in our 2015 “Helping Children Thrive” report, AFT members stand ready to continue and build on our work to improve children’s nutrition and end child hunger.
Feeding our hungry students isn’t just the right thing to do. It has proven to reduce absenteeism and improve student performance. Full bellies mean better well-being, less impulsiveness and hyperactivity, and even reduced depression and anxiety in our students.
Alfreida Jamison, a middle school educator and member of the Southwest Suburban Federation of Teachers in Illinois, explains this connection in the “2015 Kelly Report on Health Disparities in America.”
AFT members are standing up for consistent access to hot meals with healthy ingredients prepared from scratch for our students. Thanks to the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the nutritional content of school meals has been steadily improving. We are thrilled that the USDA and Congress are increasingly dedicated to training all school personnel.
As research shows, across the country, we are improving students’ access to school breakfast. Through programs like the USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision, we’re making great strides to connect high-need communities with new support, and to help students eat more wholesome foods.
AFT members look forward to continuing to plan, implement and improve school breakfast programs, because when these programs succeed, we know we’re doing right by our students and giving every child his or her best shot at success.