Studies clearly prove that children who eat breakfast not only have more energy for their classwork and daily activities, but they are also less likely to snack on fatty foods throughout the day. Right now, though, there is a lot of debate over whether or not offering a free breakfast at school promotes obesity in children.
A new survey should encourage anyone begrudging free breakfasts in the classroom to think twice. According to new research from Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign, three out of five teachers across the nation report teaching hungry children on a regular basis. “The saddest are the children who cry when we get out early for a snow day because they won’t get lunch,” a Midwestern teacher anonymously reported to Share Our Strength, a nonprofit that fights childhood hunger in America.
The survey polled more than 1,000 K-8 public school teachers across the country. Four out of five of the teachers who reported underfed children said these kids are showing up in class hungry at least once a week. And the majority of all teachers polled say that, thanks to a weak economy, rising food costs, and persistent underemployment, hunger is a problem that is growing larger. In fact, 56 percent of the teachers reported that for “a lot” or “most” of their students, school food is their primary meal of the day.
“When students are hungry and distracted, they’re not learning,” said U.S. Secretary of the Department of Education Arne Duncan at a Share Our Strength panel discussion in Hyattsville, Md., when the organization released the survey findings earlier this month. “To set kids up for academic success, we must make sure they’re getting the healthy food they need at breakfast and lunch so they can concentrate in the classroom throughout the day.”
What do teachers recommend? Well, most are pitching in themselves to take care of the children in their classes. Approximately 54 percent report spending about $26 of their own money a month to feed hungry students. They also want to encourage everyone to participate when free meals are offered because 33 percent of students don’t want to be stigmatized as low-income. Occasionally, teachers report, families may not even know there is a free breakfast to be had or they struggle to get children to school at a designated breakfast time.
They suggest increasing communication with students’ families so they are aware of any programs in their schools and encouraging advocacy of these programs so that it’s a fun meal everyone in the school can easily take part in—and therefore make kids who desperately need breakfast feel good about participating.
“Access to healthy food is the number one school supply students need to succeed in the classroom this fall,” Tom Nelson, president of Share Our Strength, said in a statement. “Kids can’t concentrate on reading and math when they’re focused on their growling stomachs. If we want our youngest generation to grow up smarter, healthier and stronger, we need to make sure they get the healthy food they need every day.”
Kristin Kloberdanz is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. She has written for Time, the Chicago Tribune and Forbes.com about everything from economic crises and political snafus to best summer beach reads.