By Jordan Corona, Baylor University senior and journalism major
Hunger pangs are mean things.
Stomach it. Swallow it. Close your eyes. Try to block out all of your thoughts. At least when you’re thinking of nothing it doesn’t hurt as much. It’s hard though, because, right now, all you really want to think about is food. But you know that if you let your mind drift to thoughts about a piece of fruit or a hot meal, you’ll never get it back. Forget concentrating on what your history teacher is saying; all you can bear to do is think about nothing.
“When a child is hungry, they really can’t think about anything else,” said Shelly Lyles, a third-grade teacher at Fairfield Elementary School in Fairfield, Texas. “They can’t focus, they can’t pay attention. I mean, those are our basic needs in life: food, shelter and clothing.”
The Atascosa River and Bonita Creek intersect at the south Texas town of Pleasanton, about a 30-minute drive outside of San Antonio. Even in a town with a name like Pleasanton, many families do not have enough resources to be sure about their next meal or to know if they can afford breakfast the next day. Many times, not having enough manifests itself when children from those households are too hungry to concentrate on their schoolwork.
Today, nearly 65 percent of the students in the Pleasanton Independent School District qualify for and receive free and reduced-price lunch.
But the morning ticks away all too slowly for a child waiting for lunch—the first meal of the day.
“When you’re hungry, you can’t concentrate on what’s in front of you,” Keri Cooper, principal at Pleasanton Elementary School said.
Cooper began her work at the school more than five years ago as a counselor.
She said children often feel ashamed when they’re hungry in class. They feel separated from other students for not having enough to eat.
But things can get better.
Breakfast in the Classroom
Pleasanton Elementary, like the six other schools in its district, provides free breakfast for every student every morning, every day.
First and second graders at Pleasanton Elementary School like to eat pigs-in-a-blanket for breakfast. Every morning, two students from every class retrieve a rolling cooler with the class’s morning meals inside.
“The students eat their breakfast while they listen to the announcements at 8:15,” Cooper said. Once class begins, cafeteria workers collect the coolers and any trash and take them away.
“We can at least be sure every student is getting two nutritious meals a day,” Cooper said.
For at least for most of a day, hungry students at Pleasanton Elementary have enough to eat.
The public school system is wide enough and structured enough to help make things better for children all over the state. What’s missing, by and large, are informed critiques of individual district practices.
Universal and Free
“Breakfast is extremely important because students who eat in the morning, are more active, participate more readily and tend to have few disciplinary issues,” Christine Sanchez, director for food and nutritional services at Pleasanton ISD, said.
The universal-free breakfast program in Pleasanton is three years in the works. Sanchez said the change from the former way of doing things went over easily.
In Texas, students whose homes are food insecure qualify for help affording lunch. Of those who need free and reduced-priced lunches to stay fueled during the day, approximately 45 percent partake in their school’s breakfast.
“It was more cost effective when all the students participated, given the districts free and reduced-price lunch numbers,” Sanchez said.
Part of Sanchez’s work pooling support from the proper school officials meant she needed to show how the district’s normal breakfast program operation could be better. She said most of the data she relied on three years ago, before she knew about THI’s annual school breakfast report, was sparse and had a very national scope.
In the past, there just wasn’t enough readily accessible data about school breakfast programs in Texas to license the sort of change on the sort of scale that would make the system better.
Texas School Breakfast Report Card
But a concerted effort to make that information more accessible just rolled off the press—for the second time—this spring.
The Texas Hunger Initiative’s Texas School Breakfast Report Card is a resource of explanation about Texas child hunger, successful breakfast program models and state-level data.
The publication contributes to a dialogue about improving childhood nutrition using the public school infrastructure. It is complete with success stories and practical models to improve the current rate of school breakfast participation in Texas.
“Data can be a powerful tool to educate decision makers,” Kathy Krey, THI’s director of research, said.
The tables in the appendix articulate two very important objectives—where Texas schools are and where they could be in the fight against hunger.
But the concepts are pretty powerless printed and packed in their pages. The power to change the state’s school breakfast system for the better is a matter of understanding and response.
What is a right response?
Food insecurity is complicated. In the context of Texas public schools, however, breakfast is really a matter of access. What keeps hungry students from having enough to eat?
The Texas Hunger Initiative is a proponent of universal-free breakfast program models because they reduce access barriers, ensuring there is enough to make living better.
Pleasanton schools, for example, found that giving everyone free breakfast was more efficient than other distributive procedures, which inadvertently made a spectacle of other students’ need.
Ultimately, poor nutrition programs are only indicative of greater, more systemic problems. If we can maximize the school system’s infrastructure and influence against childhood hunger then better practices will come. For that, advocates have an obligation to the reality of the way things are in today’s system—both the inefficiencies and the victories.
And to that end, the Texas School Breakfast Report Card paints a much clearer and more complete picture of how Texas students are fed, and it continues to be a step in the direction toward making things better.
To learn more about what your school can do to overcome barriers to school breakfast participation in your district, take a look at pages 9 – 19 in the Texas School Breakfast Report Card or contact a THI Child Hunger Outreach Specialist in your area.