Jennifer Poff Cooper
One in six kids in Virginia lives in families that struggle with hunger. Research shows that hunger has serious consequences for children, including lower test scores, weaker school attendance rates, and higher risk of hospitalization and chronic diseases.
In April, Governor Terry McAuliffe and First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe, along with No Kid Hungry Virginia and its partners, announced the winners of the Virginia Breakfast Challenge, a campaign to increase school breakfast participation across the state.
Twelve schools across Virginia each received $4,000 grants based on their increased participation in school breakfast programs – including Eastern Montgomery High School. School divisions were placed in one of four categories based on the division’s overall enrollment. In each category, one elementary, middle and high school won based on breakfast participation growth from October to December 2016, compared to the same timeframe in 2015.
EMHS experienced a 14% increase in breakfast participation this past school year over the previous year.
No Kid Hungry Virginia focuses on Breakfast After the Bell as a critical way to end childhood hunger as well as help children learn more and perform better in school. The program increases access to school breakfast by bringing breakfast out of the cafeteria and making it a part of the school day.
Jillien Miear, Associate Director of No Kid Hungry, said that means working with schools to rethink how kids get this first meal of the day. The issue with traditional programs, Miear said, is that most breakfasts are served before the school day begins, which can pose problems if children do not have early transportation to school and can also create a stigma associated with the free meal.
Interested schools opt in to the Virginia Breakfast Challenge, signaling a commitment to the larger movement. The winners of this year’s competition have made sure that their students have the chance to begin every day with a nutritious breakfast. Alternative programs that increase access to breakfast include serving breakfast in classrooms, or having ‘grab and go’ kiosks as EMHS has done. The award winners, Miear said, typically “think outside the box.”
With Breakfast After the Bell, the staff administers the program on the back end so that kids are not aware of who is paying and who is not, helping to “build a sense of community” as all children eat together, Miear said.
Miear attributes the growth of alternative breakfast programs in Virginia to the leadership of the McAuliffes and the Department of Education, working directly with school leaders to find ways around barriers. In addition, Miear credits parents who advocate for their schools to participate in the program and make an “active choice” to allow their children to have this meal at school.
The program works with the food and nutrition service directors at the district and county levels to allocate the award money. The $4,000 is “flexible funding,” said Miear, so schools are able to use it as they see fit. Recommendations from No Kid Hungry include using the money for additional storage or allowing teachers to eat to increase the sense of community.
EMHS is starting a women’s soccer program this year and they are using the funds for soccer goals, said Montgomery County Public Schools spokeswoman Brenda Drake.
Virginia was one of the top 10 states with the biggest growth in breakfast programs, according to recent data from the Food Research & Action Center, and served 8 million more breakfasts during the 2016-2017 school year, compared to the 2013-2014 school year.
Still, there is room for growth. Virginia has a 59% breakfast participation level compared to lunch participation, and in a recent survey three-fourths of teachers said kids come to school hungry. The goal, said Miear, is to make sure that any child needing breakfast has access to it on the day they need it, regardless of income.
Montgomery County is aiming toward that standard. According to Drake, “We have grab and go at every school now, and our middle and high schools offer second chance breakfast after first period. This is one more way of making sure our students have the proper nutrition that they need so they are better equipped to learn.”
No Kid Hungry is a nonprofit that works to end childhood hunger in Virginia, a campaign of national anti-hunger organization Share Our Strength. It is the product of a public-private partnership that includes the First Lady of Virginia, Dorothy McAuliffe, the Virginia Department of Health, the Virginia Department of Education, and several corporate partners – core partners being Arby’s, Walmart, Food Network, and Citi.
“When we all come together, extraordinary things can happen,” said Miear.
For more information see NoKidHungry.org, or visit va.nokidhungry.org for details about No Kid Hungry Virginia’s work and Breakfast After the Bell programs.