While many of us gorged on ham and chocolate over the holidays, there were more than 3 million children who were at risk of going through the holiday break without access to nutritious foods. This is not just a holiday hunger for these children; it is every day of the year. With the numerous funded programs we have available, why are so many of our children still at-risk of going hungry?
Unfortunately, that answer is easy. While these funded programs exist, they are not being utilized by many school districts. Through federal meal programs made available through the US Department of Agriculture, most Texas schoolchildren can have access to three meals a day at no cost to them or the district. Over the holiday break, school districts could still offer meals to their neediest students through the Child and Adult Care Food Program. Yet, very few school districts operate this program during the holiday or even during the school year.
According to Children at Risk’s recently released School Food Rankings, which looked at how well school nutrition departments were serving their most vulnerable students, seven of the top 10 departments were located around the San Antonio and South Texas area. The top districts on the School Food Rankings had high participation in school breakfast and school lunch, and all but a few of these districts served an afterschool meal last school year. With the exception of only one district, all of the top performing nutrition departments can be found in South Texas or in the El Paso area.
Why does it seem to be an uphill battle for districts to want to serve meals to their students? Especially when the data shows how vital a full belly is for children to retain the information they learn in school and achieve academic success.
Understandably, there is hesitation with implementing new programs. We would like to write about how easy the process is, but it can be difficult for school districts and their nutrition departments to change the status quo. After years of working with school nutrition departments, we can tell you that the growing pains are worth it. Children who were going home to a handful of crackers now have the option to eat a full meal before leaving school. Can you imagine eating your last meal of the day at 11:30 a.m.? That is the reality for so many of our school children — and changing that reality is worth the additional steps it takes to implement an afterschool meal program.
Clearly, there is work to do. Until all of our districts locally, across the state and nationally recognize their part in reducing child hunger, we will continue to have children going without. Children are the future workforce — and we need to ensure our schools are utilizing every available meal program. If our schools don’t use them, then districts in other states wind up getting our funding. Let’s keep the money in our state; let’s benefit Texas children.
Find out if your child’s district is doing all they can to feed their students. Ask if an afterschool meal program is served. Ask if breakfast is brought to the classroom for students or served in bags for students to eat on their way to class. If not, ask why. These programs are available to help alleviate hunger, so let’s make sure every child in Texas has a bright future, no child should go hungry in our great state.
Sanborn is the president and CEO of Children at Risk. Eyer is director of the Center for Child Health Research and Policy at Children at Risk.