Dorothy McAuliffe is the first lady of Virginia and Kathleen Sandoval is the first lady of Nevada.
We sit on opposite sides of the country and serve in administrations from opposite sides of the political aisle. However, when it comes to the health and well-being of our children, we stand together. In our respective roles, we work hard to build a bright future for all kids, but the fact remains that too many children across the United States go hungry. Too many live with the constant toxic stress about food. Too many of our youngest students fall short academically because they do not have access to the quality nutrition they need to thrive. In our land of plenty, too many kids are forced to settle for less.
Our present does not need to dictate our future. We can turn the tide and make a difference in the lives of the children who need our help the most. That is why we are working together to raise awareness of this issue, which puts the future of communities across the nation at risk.
Here are six important things to know about childhood hunger in America.
1. Kids need our help.
Thirteen million kids in this nation (one in six) live in a family that struggles with food insecurity. Children in these families may sometimes come home from school to bare pantries and empty refrigerators. Parents may skip meals just so their children can eat over the weekend. Too often, food insecure families are forced to make impossible decisions between paying the rent, fueling up the car, turning on the heat, or buying a bag of groceries.
2. Childhood hunger hurts our schools and our economy.
Teachers understand the connection between nutrition and education. Children can't be hungry for knowledge if they are just plain hungry. Studies show that students who start their days with breakfast are better able to focus and learn. Test scores and attendance rates rise. Trips to the nurse (and to the principal's office) decrease. And when kids feel better and learn more, they're more likely to graduate, get good-paying jobs, and break the vicious cycle of entrenched, intergenerational poverty. Feeding children isn't just a "good" thing to do; it's our responsibility. It isn't just the "right" thing to do; it's the smart thing.
Feeding children isn't just the "right" thing to do. It's the smart thing.
When our kids are healthy, smart, and strong, so are our communities and so are our states. We can't expect the next generation to lead the United States into an era of global economic competitiveness and protect our national security interests in an increasingly complex world if 13 million American children are going hungry.
3. We have the solution.
The good news: hunger is a solvable issue in our country. By prioritizing collaboration and innovation, we can leverage the federal child nutrition programs to expand access to healthy meals for kids both in and out of school.
Something as simple as changing the time breakfast is served can make all the difference. Shifting breakfast so it's served as a normal part of the school day ensures that more kids get the meals they need. In a recent Virginia Department of Education study examining the impact of Breakfast After the Bell, one principal remarked, "The program has increased the amount of time spent on instruction when compared to the traditional method of serving students in the cafeteria." A teacher commented, "It is so much better having breakfast in the classrooms. When the students went to the cafeteria, I had 10 students late due to breakfast every morning. I love that they can bring it into the classroom and get started on morning work!"
It's remarkable how often teachers and administrators point to the positive benefits of creating community in their classrooms when kids sit down and eat together. Improved learning environments and educational outcomes are reasons why we've led efforts in Virginia and Nevada to increase access to school breakfast using these innovative approaches.
Other states, including Nevada, Virginia, Illinois, New Mexico, and Colorado, are seeing similar positive results after making breakfast a part of the regular school day.
4. Ending childhood hunger is a bipartisan issue.
Unlike many issues facing our nation, ending childhood hunger is an issue that unites Americans. In recent polling, 70 percent of Americans said they want their leaders to focus more on reducing hunger, a view supported across the board by a majority of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. Historically, programs that feed our nation's children have had strong bipartisan support. In fact, The National School Lunch Program got its start during World War II as a matter of national security when our military leaders called on the government to feed children in order to build a stronger nation. Decades later, former US Senators George McGovern (D) and Robert Dole (R) joined forces to strengthen the food stamp program, ensuring that more struggling families could provide their kids with basic nutrition.
5. Access improves health.
Strong school meal programs are a critical tool in the fight against childhood obesity. All federal nutrition programs are regulated by strict USDA nutrition standards that ensure each meal is full of the nutrients that kids need to thrive. A 2014 child nutrition study found that children who skipped meals were more likely to have excess body fat.
Researchers concluded that home-packed lunches did not measure up.
Schools not only provide regular meal access, but the science is clear that they are healthier than other options. A recent study from Virginia Tech compared 750 school lunches with 560 packed lunches given to the youngest elementary school students in Virginia, and researchers concluded that the home-packed lunches did not measure up. Calories, fat, and sugar content were "significantly higher" and protein, sodium, calcium, and vitamin A were "significantly lower" in bagged lunches. Eating in school environments also offers the opportunity for students to engage in learning around healthy eating practices, nutrition science, and food sourcing.
6. Everyone has a role to play.
As the Chair and Vice Chair of the National Governors Association First Spouses program, we are urging First Spouses across the US to take action to end childhood hunger in their states. We all agree that there is a significant problem, but YOU can be a part of the solution. We also urge our fellow citizens to speak out. Contact your elected officials about hunger and related programs in your state. Ask your school superintendent or principal about making breakfast part of the school day. Advocate for the kids in your community who don't have a voice.
Wherever you sit, you can stand with us to build a brighter future for America's children.
Join the No Kid Hungry campaign at NoKidHungry.org.