As you sit down to your Thanksgiving meal tomorrow, an important number to contemplate is 16 million. That’s how many young Americans are food insecure, the federal measure of whether children are guaranteed the nutrition they need, 365 days a year.
“For too long childhood hunger in this country has been an invisible hunger,” says Josh Wachs of the No Kid Hungry, an organization dedicated to connecting families with food-related resources.
“No Kid Hungry was really founded with the belief that childhood hunger doesn’t exist in this country because we lack food as a country or that we lack food and nutrition programs,” says Wachs, “but that childhood hunger still exists as a major issue, because kids don’t have access to those food programs, and so our goal is to surround kids with three healthy meals every single day of the year.”
The organization promotes food education for families, advocates for nationwide and local policy changes and connects kids to existing food nutrition programs that are underutilized — like free school breakfast and summer meal programs.
Free school breakfast programs have been proven to help children concentrate better and stay healthy, but not enough families are taking advantage of the resource. New York City is ranked 63rd out of 63 major cities that offer free breakfast. Wachs attributes this to two causes: the meals are distributed before school, making it difficult for the parents who rely on public transportation to arrive early, and the pervasive stigma that only “poor kids” take advantage of school breakfast.
In response, No Kid Hungry has promoting grab-n-go breakfast bags that can be eaten inside the classroom during homeroom, a strategy that’s gaining steam in school districts across the country.
“If you know the middle school and high school populations, you know they’re dragging themselves into school in the morning,” says Noreen Lishak, deputy superintendent of Union Township Public Schools in New Jersey, a district that’s been implementing this approach. “We thought, ‘What if we do something where they don’t actually have to go into the cafeteria, if that’s not something they like to do?’ So we put together a bag option with fruit, a bagel, a muffin, and some juice last year.” Since the school district is trying to increase school breakfast participation by ten percent each year, this year they’ve adopted a new fruit smoothie option for breakfast.
They’ve also tried to create healthy alternatives styled after fast food menus. They are open to any strategies that “might tempt kids to come on in, eat breakfast, and get ready for their day at school,” says Lishak.
Another reason that cities should support breakfast after the bell: No Kid Hungry research shows that educators use that time constructively to make sure children are occupied while they take attendance, read announcements, and collect homework assignments.
“To be successful at ending childhood hunger, you’re going to need action on all the levels,” asserts Wachs. “The federal level, because childhood nutrition programs are governed by Congress. … The state level, because you have state agencies that are administering these programs. And on the city level, because cities have the infrastructure to be able to provide those meals.”
He adds, “[Local] education systems are crucial to our success, as they are the best place to connect with low-income families accessing nutrition.”
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Alexis Stephens was Next City’s 2014-2015 equitable cities fellow. She’s written about housing, pop culture, global music subcultures, and more for publications like Shelterforce, Rolling Stone, SPIN, and MTV Iggy. She has a B.A. in urban studies from Barnard College and an M.S. in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania.