Ending childhood hunger in Virginia

Published 11:35 am Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The holiday season is upon us and many of us are looking forward to sharing time with our friends and family, giving thanks around tables filled with food. However, one in six of Virginia’s students do not have regular access to food at home. Thousands of children in the commonwealth rely on school meals as their only consistent source of quality nutrition, making the holiday season a time of anxiety and hardship for them. For too many families, hunger does not take a holiday.

In many ways, a child denied basic nutrition is a child denied their basic civil rights. And much like previous attempts to secure equality in the classroom, this problem has often gone overlooked.

Teachers understand the connection between nutrition and education — children can’t be hungry for knowledge if they are just plain hungry. Students who eat school breakfast have been shown to achieve 17.5 percent higher scores in math and attend 1.5 more days of school each year, which, when combined, make these students 20 percent more likely to graduate from high school.

Today, of the more than 530,000 students across Virginia who qualify for free or reduced-price meals, more than half do not participate in school breakfast. It is clear that the traditional approach of serving breakfast in the cafeteria before school starts is simply not meeting the needs of every family. Breakfast After the Bell models improve breakfast participation because they take breakfast outside of the cafeteria and make the meal part of the school day.

It’s no wonder more than 340 schools transitioned to Breakfast After the Bell models last year and even more are making the leap this year. Thanks to these programs, nearly 5 million more breakfasts were served to Virginia students in 2015 than in 2014. By making breakfast more convenient, we can access the federal funds Congress allocates to feed kids in need and support the healthy development of the next generation.

We are proud of the accomplishments of the last two years. I have joined with our education leaders, child advocates, and legislature in a bipartisan effort to support school breakfast participation, enroll more schools in the Community Eligibility Provision, and expand summer and afterschool meal access at schools and community organizations.

But as long as there are hungry children in the commonwealth, there is work to be done.

I hope you will join me in working to end childhood hunger in Virginia by encouraging the students in your community to participate in school breakfast and asking your school to make the leap to Breakfast After the Bell. I also encourage you to sign your school up for the Virginia Breakfast Challenge, a new statewide competition to support growth in breakfast participation. You have the opportunity to win great prizes for your staff and students.

We are called to serve our fellow citizens year round. However, during the holidays, this calling takes on a specific urgency. Learn more and enroll your school at VABreakfast.org.

Dorothy McAuliffe is the First Lady of Virginia. She can be reached at (804) 663-7490.