Rise Up

California's Bipartisan Support Could Transform School Breakfast and Lunch Nationwide

Believe it or not, warring American political parties could actually work together to solve childhood hunger.

by Matt Branham
Nov 27 2017, 6:30pm

Photo via Flickr.

According to a recent study, three out of five teachers in California say they regularly teach kids who come to school hungry. But on October 12, 2017 the state Senate passed Senate Bill 138, which provides free breakfast and lunch to more than 650,000 kids statewide in a shutout victory -- 39-0 votes. That means more than 20 percent of the 3.2 million hungry children in the state are getting the food they need to thrive in school.

And California isn’t alone. States like Virginia are starting to make big strides, putting more than 10 million meals on the table to bridge the gap between those who get enough to eat and those who don’t. While states like Illinois, Maryland and New York are starting to make headway, New Mexico and Colorado already have fairly comprehensive food programs in place.

Nonprofits, such has No Kid Hungry, have been lobbying governors and state legislators across the country to run on anti-hunger platforms on a state level while giving resources to local political activists on the ground level. Although one in six children in America’s cities struggle with hunger, No Kid Hungry’s efforts have connected more than 775 million meals with kids since 2012. With numbers like these, California’s new bill could be a nationwide legislative template, especially with this kind of undivided bipartisan support.

Classroom Politics & Stigmas

Senate Bill 138 is the result of nearly a year’s worth of partnership and state capitol visits between No Kid Hungry and a handful of devoted individuals, including parents and teachers alongside the California Food Policy Advocates and California Association of Food Banks.

“We have the resources to fix the problem, but we have to make sure we’re reaching kids in the right way.”

“There seems to be a lot of advocacy on the state and local levels. When those ideas grow, they begin to spread,” Kathy Saile, Director of No Kid Hungry California, told VICE Impact. “But our approach differs from state to state. There is no one-size-fits-all on this issue.”

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The biggest obstacle, according to No Kid Hungry Director of Strategic Communications, Laura Washburn, is getting the most influential leaders to act. “We want to build off this success with strong bipartisan support, asking people who will be running statewide to put child hunger high on their agenda,” Washburn said.

This bill also has the powerful byproduct of ridding schools of antiquated stigmas. In the old system, children of low-income families would get to school early for their free breakfast, but when the rest of the students who didn’t qualify for free meals showed up, a division occurred between them and the “poor kids,” which can stem into bullying.

“This new bill is not only a detour from that gap,” said Washburn, “it’s a bridge that brings all the students together in a communal setting before school.” Maryland has moved breakfast from the cafeteria to the classroom for just such reason, so kids are not only getting the nutrition they need; they’re connecting with one another before the bell even rings.

The State of Child Hunger

Think back to when you were a kid in the cafeteria lunch line. What did you your plate look like? Was it made of styrofoam, loaded with processed carbs and contingent on how quickly you got into that lunch line? Was it your first meal of the day? For many kids today, it is.

“We want to build off this success with strong bipartisan support, asking people who will be running statewide to put child hunger high on their agenda.”

The reality is that 25 percent of households with children in large cities live with food insecurity, a limited or uncertain availability of nutritious goods. Even worse, 64 percent of low-income families say it would be difficult to feed their children if they were to encounter the slightest added expense. That kind of uncertainty attracts negative effects to the classroom, from poor attendance and test scores to bad grades and behavior, but Direct Certification with Medicaid ensures children don’t have to go hungry, should their families encounter an unexpected debt.

Bipartisan support to end childhood hunger makes sense because breakfast nutrition is crucial on multiple levels. It assists in getting kids the energy needed to get to school, providing an average of 1.5 more days attended by students in schools with these meal systems in place. According to a study on social impact by Deloitte, schools that implement free breakfasts have seen a rise in attendance and a drop in tardiness, while lending to children’s ability to internalize ideas and retain them for exams, including 17.5 percent higher scores on standardized math tests.

The breakfasts, generally consisting of at least whole-grain cereal, fruit and milk, help avoid costly medical bills caused by malnutrition, as well as chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and obesity, brought on by poor diet.

Call to Action

A focus on legislation by California Governor Jerry Brown and specific articulation in the language of the new bill by Senator Mike McGuire and his staff were both key in passing the Senate Bill 138 as desired, but even small acts have the capacity for big results, according to Washburn.

“We have the resources to fix the problem, but we have to make sure we’re reaching kids in the right way,” Washburn said. No Kid Hungry’s “text to find summer meals” service, for example, comes in handy during the worst time of the year (when school is out), especially in rural areas where kids have a harder time accessing meals. Kids or parents can simply text “FOOD” to an 877-877 number and receive access to summer meals when kids are not in school to get them. More than 574,000 vulnerable families have been helped in less than five years through the text service.

So what can you do to help? Spread the word. Try something as simple as writing your governor or starting a Facebook fundraiser. You can take donations during your holiday parties, even if it’s just a few dollars from everyone. Donate to No Kid Hungry Consider it an investment into your nation’s future, as well as penance for throwing an ugly sweater party. Tis the season.

You can also combat youth hunger and homelessness by donating to Covenant House, America’s largest non-profit shelter for homeless youth.