The Worst State for Food Insecurity Changes Course With School Breakfasts

The Dude abides! Jeff Bridges gives Arkansas props and challenges other states to step up.

Actor Jeff Bridges draws vegetables on a lunch sack for a Stephens Elementary School student in Little Rock, Ark., on Monday during an exercise promoting healthy eating and the importance of breakfast. (Photo: Courtesy Suzi Parker)

Mar 19, 2014· 4 MIN READ
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Surrounded by elementary school children, Jeff Bridges holds a deck of cards in his hands. “If you have had a yummy, healthy breakfast, clap three times,” he says.

Every student claps.

“If you’ve had cold pizza, stand on one foot,” Bridges says.

A few kids do, and Bridges, who's long advocated for the end of hunger, tells them he’s not sure that’s a good idea because it’s better to have fruit or something healthier.

On Monday the Academy Award–winning actor was at Stephens Elementary School in Little Rock, Ark., as the spokesperson for Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry campaign, which is kicking off a challenge to the nation to connect a million more children to classroom breakfasts in the next two years.

“Eating a healthy breakfast dramatically changes kids’ lives,” Bridges says. “Too many kids are starting the day too hungry to learn.”

With 45 percent of its kids on food stamps, Arkansas ranks first in food insecurity in the U.S., according to Share Our Strength. The state has stepped up its efforts since 2010, when Gov. Mike Beebe partnered with No Kid Hungry on programs such as "Breakfast After the Bell" and summer meals. Since then, 1.5 million additional school breakfasts have been served to students there.

“Arkansas has had the biggest increase in school breakfasts than any other state,” Share Our Strength founder and CEO Bill Shore says. “Childhood hunger is so solvable; we know how to end it. It’s just a matter of connecting kids with the program. We can’t have a strong America if children are hungry.”

Adding in the other states leading the effort, Maryland, Colorado, California, and Texas, more than 2 million low-income students receive free breakfasts.

Studies show that breakfast has a direct impact on children’s academic achievement and health. One report by Deloitte Consulting (commissioned by No Kid Hungry) found that when kids consistently eat the meal at school, attendance rates improve and math test scores rise as much as 17.5 percent. A Harvard study in 1998 found that breakfast could improve kids' academic performance and behavior.

“We rarely see kids with a stomachache anymore, because usually when they have one they are hungry,” says Cynthia Collins, principal at Franklin Elementary in Little Rock. “Our students learn about breakfast in the classroom every morning. They pass out place mats, learn about food and each other. It’s a sharing time.”

School lunch programs were the target of Republican Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s speech at a recent Conservative Political Action Committee meeting. He accused Democrats of offering students “a full stomach and an empty soul.” In his speech he told a story he once heard about a boy who received free lunch. “He wanted his own lunch, one in a brown paper bag just like the other kids. He wanted one, he said, because he knew a kid with a brown paper bag had someone who cared for him.”

The Washington Post, however, found that Ryan had taken the story out of context. In fact, the child, Maurice Mazyck, is now a grown man who advocates for school lunches through No Kid Hungry.

Both Bridges and Shore say that there shouldn’t be anything political about giving hungry kids food. “It comes down to what kind of country you want to live in,” Bridges says. “Our kids are our future. Many Democrats and Republicans support these programs.”

In the past, breakfast-in-school programs have had bipartisan support—politically and financially—in Washington. Bridges has spoken at the Democratic and Republican national conventions about the issue. The more common problem this campaign hopes to conquer is getting schools to serve breakfast.

The traditional school breakfast delivery model, in which students can receive breakfast from their school cafeteria before school begins, has not been widely effective in getting students to eat at school. This may be due to the social stigma associated with the program being for poor kids, as well as the difficulty of getting students to school early enough to eat before class starts. The No Kid Hungry campaign aims to increase participation by advocating that schools implement “alternative breakfast models,” in which breakfast is made part of the school day, thereby increasing student access and reducing negative stigmas. Schools involved in the program set aside 10 minutes at the start of school, and students receive a breakfast of fruit, cheese, rolls, milk, and juice.

It seems like a simple project, but often teachers and administrators are hesitant to initiate it. They fear a mess in the classroom, such as spilled milk, and time taken away from learning. “It was a tough sale for our teachers to get it and understand it,” Collins says. “But when they saw it wasn’t complicated, then they got behind it.”

No Kid Hungry, which is in all 50 states, works with elected officials, corporate leaders, school officials, and nonprofit communities to ensure children get breakfast. But anyone can get involved. No Kid Hungry has an action center that allows people to type in their zip code and learn how they can help kids in their area receive healthy breakfasts.

Even with the program’s success in Arkansas, only 55 percent of children eating free or reduced-price lunch receive a school breakfast. That’s better, says Shore, than in many states, where the gap is even larger. Arkansas plans to connect another 15,000 kids to breakfast this year in 200 more schools.

Bridges acknowledges that breakfast in schools isn’t a “sexy” issue but a critical one that needs to be addressed in the United States. The actor got involved in hunger issues during the 1980s when he cofounded the End Hunger Network. He produced a three-hour live television broadcast focusing on world hunger in 1983. But he realized that it was difficult to tell other countries what to do when the United States had its own mammoth hunger problem.

He plans to talk about Arkansas' success next week in Montana when he meets with governors from various states to encourage them to join the campaign. “We can’t tell other countries how to do it when we don’t know how to do it ourselves,” Bridges says. “Hunger has to do with poverty, and that’s a complex issue. But this is a program that is effective and doable. It’s about creating our personal will to end hunger.”

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.