Vanessa Descalzi is Manager of National Communications for Teach For America.
Trending surprise of 2012: school lunch. From salad bars funded by Whole Foods to palm scanners that pay for meals, cafeteria coverage is popping up all over the media. Thanks to some innovative Pittsburgh students dissatisfied with their smaller portions, it even has its own hashtag: #brownbaggingit. While lunch is enjoying it’s time as the “it-meal” of the moment, another meal is going largely unnoticed. This is my nod to breakfast – the most important meal of the day, at risk for millions of our country’s kids.
In the U.S., hunger disproportionately affects children—while they make up just 25 percent of our total population, kids represent nearly 40 percent of hunger relief charity recipients. And with food insecurity existing in nearly 15 percent of U.S. households, millions of kids are starting their days hungry and unsure of where their next meal will come from.
I don’t think anyone would argue that kids don’t deserve proper nourishment. With new school nutrition standards set to be implemented this fall and over 88,000 schools and institutions partnering with the School Breakfast Program to deliver free and reduced breakfast to students, it would seem our school officials are all on-board to provide a healthy start to the kids that need it most. This is amazing—and it makes what’s happening in my city’s classrooms all the more worrisome.
According to the Food Research and Action Center’s 2012 report, the most effective school breakfast programs are those that serve breakfast in the classroom. Doing so does away with the stigma associated with going to the cafeteria to collect free or reduced lunch. Since adopting such a program, Newark has seen its number of students who eat breakfast triple—Houston and D.C. have also seen their breakfast participation increase dramatically. By adopting breakfast in the classroom programs, the country’s top four districts provide at least 65 percent of their low-income students with meals. The bottom line, the report finds, is that these programs “have emerged as the most effective strategy to get school breakfast to the large number of students who need it.”
So why is New York City, where over a quarter of residents under 18 live below the poverty line, halting classroom breakfast expansion? Currently used in just 381 of 1,750 schools, the city’s health department is concerned that some students are getting two breakfasts, contributing to the roughly 40 percent of overweight or obese New York elementary- and middle-school students.
Food is dangerous on both ends of the spectrum—too much or too little can have alarming consequences. I’m not advocating double breakfasts for all, but the millions of children who go hungry every morning is reason enough to support the growth of classroom breakfast programs in New York City and throughout the country. By taking a page from Newark’s large outreach effort to inform parents about their breakfast program, we could both reduce the number of students “double dipping” and increase access for those genuinely in need.
Of the 26 large urban districts examined in the Food Research and Action Center’s report, New York City ranked dead last in its ratio of low-income students eating breakfast compared to lunch. This cannot continue, here or anywhere. It’s time to shed light on this important issue so that the students going without don’t also go unnoticed.
Vanessa Descalzi is manager of national communications for Teach For America. She lives in New York City.