On Tuesday, January 28, President Barack Obama will give his annual State of the Union address to the nation. The president is expected to focus on ways to strengthen the nation, including reducing inequality and poverty and increasing economic growth. These are complex objectives, but they include a key element that, if history is a guide, the president will not mention: ending childhood hunger. Solving that will make numerous other national goals more achievable.
A SNAPSHOT OF CHILDHOOD HUNGER IN 2014
Childhood hunger continues to be a scourge in this nation, robbing millions of children of the potential to have a successful future. According to Children’s Health Watch, children continue to be hit by poverty harder than any other age group in the country, and there are 2.75 million more kids living in poverty than there were before the 2007 recession. As a result, today, more than 16 million children live in families who are having a tough time putting enough food on the table.
When children miss meals, they’re also missing out on the opportunities that can lead to academic achievement, job readiness, good health and economic stability in their futures.
CONNECTING THE DOTS BETWEEN HUNGER, EDUCATION AND POVERTY
If we are serious about reducing income inequality and boosting the strength of the American economy, we must be serious about educating our kids. In order to eradicate the barriers to educational opportunity, we must make sure our children have the food and nutrition they need to concentrate, learn and excel in school. An overwhelming number of public school teachers and principals have told us they regularly try to teach kids who are coming to school too hungry to learn. They also tell us that, once a child has a healthy breakfast in the morning, the impact is dramatic; kids are able to focus, behave and learn.
In fact, research conducted by the consulting firm Deloitte showed the devastating toll hunger can take on every aspect of learning, from test scores to attendance. The study showed that, on average, students eating a school breakfast have been shown to achieve 17.5% higher scores on math tests. School attendance consistently rises. Kids spend more time in class and less time in the nurse’s office. All of these factors are linked to higher graduation rates, higher employment rates and higher earning potential.
In other words, if we want to create transformative, positive change in America with a direct effect on income equality and job readiness, it is critical that we feed our children.
MOMENTUM IN 2103
The good news is that childhood hunger is a solvable problem. This is a nation that has enough food for everyone as well as a system of programs to help deliver that food to those in need. Programs like school breakfast, SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or “food stamps”) and WIC kept millions of kids out of poverty and with food in their stomachs.
At the same time, there is a lot of work to do. Far too many kids who need free meals are missing out. At the same time, Congress is eyeing cuts to SNAP that could hurt millions of children.
PROACTIVE POLICY SOLUTIONS
America’s leaders have a responsibility to connect the dots. Current efforts to close the educational achievement gap that are focused only on teacher tenure, testing, and charter schools are just not comprehensive enough. If we are serious about strengthening education to boost economic growth and reduce poverty, policymakers need to take the needs of the whole child into account, especially the most basic need of all: having enough to eat. Specifically, they should:
Adopt the rigor necessary to measure and communicate the connections between food and education outcomes such as test scores, attendance, disciplinary problems and visits to school nurses.
Implement universal breakfast-after-the-bell alternatives so that all students start their day well fed and ready to learn. States such as Maryland, Arkansas, and Colorado have led the way in achieving these goals, and our federal government should support the expansion of such efforts in other states.
Revise summer feeding programs in order to ensure kids are getting enough healthy food in the months when school is closed. Today, the existing summer food program leaves as many as 80 percent of eligible children out of getting healthy meals.
Underscore commitment to the WIC program, which helps pregnant women, infants and little kids get the nutrition during the years of a child’s life most important to brain development.
Enable more schools to take advantage of the opportunity to provide healthy food to children after school to improve students’ ability to do their homework and participate in important after school enrichment activities including athletics.
President Obama, the Congress, our nation’s governors, and education advocates risk snatching defeat from the jaws of victory if they continue to ignore the direct and powerful connections between childhood hunger and education/inequality/poverty. By focusing on the thing they would most likely succeed at – ending child hunger - they would increase the odds of success with a range of education goals.
Anyone who doubts these connections or hasn’t seen the studies can find out for themselves. Just walk into a school and ask any hungry child.