Hunger in the Classroom

kids eating in classroom

A third grader sits at his classroom desk, tears streaming down his face. He isn’t paying attention to the lesson. “What’s wrong?” his teacher asks with concern. “My stomach hurts,” he replies.

The same scenario plays out the next morning, and the morning after that. His teacher, Shelly Lyles, begins to put the pieces together. “Did you eat today?” she asks.

“Well, no…” he says.

Hunger is a “huge distraction” in the classroom

Lyles has taught third grade at Fairfield Elementary School in Fairfield, Texas, for nine years. She still remembers that little boy distinctly, even though it has been years since he was in her class.

“He would never say, ‘I’m hungry.’ He’d say, ‘My stomach hurts.’ It was heartbreaking,” she said.

When it comes to childhood hunger, teachers and school administrators are on the front lines. Sometimes, the hunger is easy to spot, but often, it is difficult to see. It takes perceptive teachers. Of course, academic struggles can often be a red flag for hunger in the classroom.

“When children are hungry, they really can’t think of anything else. They can’t focus. They can’t pay attention. It just really affects their learning,” Lyles said. “They don’t have the best learning environment when they’re hungry.”

Research backs these observations. Children experiencing hunger are more likely to be hyperactive, absent and tardy, in addition to having behavioral and attention problems, compared with other children.[1] They have lower math scores, and are more likely to have to repeat a grade.[2] And these struggles continue from elementary school into junior high and high school. Teens experiencing hunger are more likely to be suspended from school and have difficulties working with other students. [3]

Jon Coker has been in education for eleven years. He taught for nine years before transitioning into an administrative role. This is his second year as assistant principal at Connally Junior High School, located in central McLennan County.

“I’ve taught in large, urban schools, small, rural schools, and suburban schools, and [hunger] is all the same.” Coker said.  “When they’re hungry, they’re distracted in the classroom, and they’re not ready to work. It’s a huge distraction.”

Hunger in the classroom isn’t a new problem in our country. But in a land of abundance, childhood hunger is unacceptable.

Identifying and confronting hunger in schools

Judy Weeden’s career in education spans more than three decades, as both a teacher and an administrator. In the last three years prior to retiring, she served as a principal. Thirty-two of her years in education were spent at China Spring Elementary School, in China Spring, Texas.

Weeden said that sometimes, especially in her early years in China Spring, she “just wasn’t as aware of how many kids didn’t have food as [she] should have been.”  Later in her career, she noticed that many kids weren’t having lunch.

“I remember at least one occasion, where a child was crying in the cafeteria. I went up to him, and I asked what was wrong. He said he was hungry, and I asked if he had a lunch today. He opened his lunch box and there was nothing in his lunch—nothing. He just took his lunch kit so people wouldn’t know he didn’t have a lunch.”

“I was just so upset. I asked him, ‘Will you eat a lunch if I get if for you?,’ and he said ‘yes.’ So I went up to the cafeteria lady and said, ‘Just charge it to my account.’ I just wanted to make sure this child had a lunch.”

Weeden provided lunches to kids on several occasions, making sure not to make a big deal of it. “It wasn’t very often, but it did happen enough that I knew there were some kids that didn’t have enough.”

Lyles also worked to close the gap when she noticed children in her class who were hungry, particularly the little boy who frequently complained of “stomach aches.”

“I would bring snacks, something like peanut butter crackers or a banana or a pop tart—just a little something to hold him over,” Lyles said.

Lyles said the boy would often hoard what he was given and also steal food from other students.

“If he went to the bathroom, he would get into other people’s lockers and steal their food. It’s hard, because they have to be punished when they do that, but it’s understandable when they’re hungry.”

Weeden suggests that behavioral issues and academic struggles have many causes, and often it’s not easy to pinpoint hunger as the source.

“Frankly, it’s a difficult problem. Sometimes kids just aren’t paying attention simply because they’d rather not be there—they’re tired. Sometimes they just didn’t take the time to eat early in the morning. It’s difficult to know where to draw the line. So you kind of have to dig deeper. It’s just not obvious,” she said.

In many cases, it takes becoming more aware of what’s going on in kids’ lives outside of school to get to the heart of the issue.

Fighting hunger through innovative programs

Free and reduced price breakfasts and lunches have helped tackle hunger and the negative side effects that go with it, but barriers still exist, and among them is the stigma of being “the poor kid.”

Programs like Universal School Breakfast and Breakfast in the Classroom, among others, reduce the stigma while increasing breakfast participation rates.

This year, Connally Junior High is offering Universal School Breakfast to its students for the first time. “Everyone gets [breakfast] now. There is still some stigma with lunch, because it’s obvious who has to pay versus who just goes through the line,” Coker said. “But the Universal program has done some to help alleviate that [at breakfast].”

Coker shared that he has also noticed a difference in punctuality and attendance.

“Before the program was implemented [students who struggle to afford meals at school] knew they couldn’t buy breakfast, so they were just straggling in. But now that they can get a breakfast here, I see more kids coming to school on time, either riding the bus or their parents dropping them off,” Coker said.

“Not having breakfast gets the day started off on the wrong foot. Getting to sit down and eat is a switch,” Coker said. “It signals ‘okay, we’re fixing to start school.’ It becomes a routine, and junior high kids really thrive on routine.”

Giving hungry children a chance to thrive

Eating can really make a difference in children’s performance at school, improving their academic performance, attendance, and behavior. These are the facts that are currently cited in studies and articles. Beyond just these numbers, it can also help a kid have a chance at a happier childhood.

Once the boy with “stomach aches” had his needs met with school meals and other outside assistance, he “became a regular kid,” Lyles said.

“When the fear of not having food was taken care of, his focus was then on school work. He made friends. Before, all he wanted to do was get something to eat. He wasn’t able to focus. He wasn’t able to carry on a conversation,” Lyles recalled. “But once that was taken care of and his physical needs were met, then he was able to move on to developing social relationships and to be able to do his work.”

Teachers and administrators don’t want their students to just survive but to thrive. Their job is to help students reach their fullest potential, and hunger stands in the way of that goal.

“Even if you weren’t concerned about how well they performed in school, you have to be compassionate about the fact that they were hungry,” Weeden said. “You want them to be taken care of like your own kids. They are your kids when you have them in your classroom.”

We at the Texas Hunger Initiative are thankful for the many caring teachers, like Jon Coker, Shelly Lyles and Judy Weeden, who have and continue to creatively confront and overcome hunger in the classroom.

For more information on what schools in your area can do to combat hunger in the classroom, take a look at pages six and seven of the Texas School Breakfast Guide.

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Written by: Ashley Yeaman, Social Media & Communications Coordinator, The Texas Hunger Initiative

Photo by: Lance Cheung, USDA

[1] Murphy JM, Wehler CA, Pagano ME, Little M, Kleinman RF, Jellinek MS. “Relationship Between Hunger and Psychosocial Functioning in Low-Income American Children.” Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 1998; 37: 163-170

[2] Alaimo K, Olson CM, Frongillo EA Jr. “Food Insufficiency and American School-Aged Children’s Cognitive, Academic and Psychosocial Development.” Pediatrics 2001; 108(1):44-53.

[3] Alaimo K, “Food Insufficiency.” 46. (See Footnote Above)

Purple Ties at Breakfast

Something interesting took place in Texas this past 83rd Legislative Session. Freshmen lawmakers started a tradition known as “Purple Thursdays,” wearing purple ties as a symbol of bipartisanship. Color choice for a necktie might seem like an insignificant subtlety, but the message was incredibly powerful. The ties were a symbol and reminder of their determination to work together — something that Washington has failed to accomplish. It didn’t take long before it wasn’t just the freshmen donning purple, and others were joining in.

I saw firsthand the goal of purple ties come to fruition when the governor signed Senate Bill 376. According to the Food Research Action Center (FRAC), one in four households with children are considered food insecure in the nation. This holds true in Texas, which has one of the highest child poverty rates (27.4%) in the country. Food insecurity is the term used to describe a situation where one or more individuals in a household do not know when or where their next meal will come from at one or more points during the year.

Senate Bill 376 would ensure that schools with 80 percent or more students eligible for a free or reduced-price meal must offer free breakfast to all students. Since the School Breakfast Program is federally funded, it won’t cost school districts or the state any additional money. The children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for free meals, and those from families with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level[1] are charged no more than 30 cents per meal. Simply put, this means that hungry children in Texas have access to the fuel they need to start a successful school day.

When we let children go hungry in the morning, we aren’t empowering them to reach their full potential. Evidence suggests that children without breakfast show a lack of participation in school, behavioral problems and decreased academic performance. Eating a healthy breakfast can lead to a more nutritionally complete diet, higher in nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Additionally it can improve concentration and performance in the classroom. Individuals that regularly eat breakfast have more strength and endurance to engage in physical activity and lower cholesterol levels.

This summer I traveled down to Austin to see firsthand how the political process in Texas works. Jeremy Everett, director of the Texas Hunger Initiative, and Anne Olson, formerly a public policy specialist at the Christian Life Commission, testified in favor of S.B. 376. Committee members from both parties listened intently as Jeremy and Anne presented their testimonies and proposed that the bill wasn’t about partisanship, but about hungry children in our communities. It was stories like those of a fourth grade student who took extra food from the cafeteria home so his brothers would have something to eat over the weekend that moved members of the committee. Although statistics and numbers are essential for effective public policy, sometimes it takes the true story of a hungry child to put things in perspective.

I began to realize that our presence at the hearing made all the difference; we were a part of the conversation. Jason Sabo a non-profit lobbyist in Texas, is quoted with saying, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” And he’s right. By not showing up to support the ideas you believe in, you’ve given a reason to be ignored.

Think about the purple ties and the breakfast bill the next time you are feeling cynical about government, especially during the current shutdown. Skepticism is warranted, but there is no place for cynicism in bettering our state and country. With our world getting smaller and inequality at an all time high, we can no longer turn a blind eye to these issues. We need to keep thinking outside the box; the act could be as simple as wearing a purple tie.

The Texas Hunger Initiative is a nonpartisan organization housed within Baylor University’s School of Social Work. Our model for ending hunger in the state is research oriented and requires a level of creative cooperation and collaboration that transcends partisanship. Raising healthy children whose basic needs are met and laying a foundation on which they can build successful lives is society’s most important responsibility.

The Texas Hunger Initiative has launched a social media campaign to boost awareness regarding the importance of reducing the stigma around free and reduce priced meals in schools, particularly breakfast. By snapping a picture of your breakfast and tagging @Texas_Hunger using the hashtag #tweatyourbreakfast on Facebook or Twitter you can contribute to this effort. For more information, visit our blog.

Written by: Tariq Thowfeek, Public Affairs & Communications Specialist, Texas Hunger Initiative

Photo courtesy of: The Texas Tribune


[1] The 2013 poverty level, set by the U.S Department of Health and Human Services is $23,550 for a four-person household.

From Hungry Kid to Culinary Master

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Chef Roman Coley Davis

When we think of hunger, images of developing nations often come to mind—high numbers of deaths from starvation and children with distended bellies. But hunger is also rampant in America. It’s just harder to see, an invisible epidemic. It manifests itself in many ways: the child whose focus wavers in class because he hasn’t eaten all day, or the family who doesn’t know where their next meal will come from, torn between buying groceries or paying the rent. Your friends, your coworkers and strangers you pass on the street could be experiencing hunger. But you wouldn’t know it just by appearances.

Roman Coley Davis grew up struggling with hunger in rural Georgia, but you would never know it if you saw him today. At 27, he’s a former combat veteran and graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, with a degree in classical French culinary arts. He has worked in one of Georgia’s most celebrated fine dining establishments, Bacchanalia, as a chef lead, and he has served as a consultant for numerous restaurants. Today, Roman is a national chef advocate for Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign, participating in the Great American Bake Sale, Taste of the Nation events in multiple cities, Dine Outs and more. He is also a certified culinarian by the American Culinary Foundation.

But even with a sparkling culinary resume, Roman was quiet about his personal experience of struggling with hunger for years, he said, “too embarrassed to breathe a word of it to anybody.”  While studying at Le Cordon Bleu in 2010, one of his chef instructors, Lori Flynn, encouraged him to apply for a Cutting Edge Scholarship to attend the Conference of Leaders. The event is hosted by Share Our Strength in Washington, D.C., and brings together leaders from the anti-hunger field, including corporate leaders, political leaders, chefs, local and national activists and more.

Roman won a scholarship and attended with Flynn, not knowing what to expect. During a plenary session, the speaker began talking about summer meals and summer feeding sites. They spoke about how cafeteria ladies, bus drivers and community leaders were taking meals to isolated local communities that were food deserts. They distributed these meals to make up for the lack of free breakfast and lunch received during the school year. It was a happy success story, but it triggered memories for Roman, and something in him broke.

“I just broke down in tears. I’m in the middle of this session, sitting in the front row, front and center, wearing a starched white chef coat, and cameras are all around us. And I just broke down,” Roman said. “And that was when I first told my story.”

Roman’s story began in Douglas, Ga., where he lived with his mother, father and younger brother, Dusty, until he was in the first grade. His parents’ relationship ended in divorce, and the family of four became a family of three, with Roman’s mother struggling to make ends meet. Without a place to go after the divorce, the family moved in with Roman’s grandmother in Denton, Ga. His grandmother survived off of a meager pension from her late husband, who had served in the Navy during the Korean War.

Roman’s mother worked as much as she could at her job at Elixir Industries, a steel manufacturing plant in Douglas. “Any hours she could get she would work—overtime, nights, weekends, anything. But she realized rather quickly that it wasn’t enough. We had lost everything [in the divorce]. We had moved counties. We had to change schools. And the money disappeared rather quickly, having to recuperate quickly, and support two children, clothing them, and the task of feeding us,” Roman said.  They relied on federal food programs, including WIC and SNAP (then food stamps). But often, it wouldn’t be enough.

Roman with his young brother, Dusty, and mother, Regina.

Roman with his young brother, Dusty, and mother, Regina.

Roman’s mother worked at her full-time job while also taking classes at the local community college. She also worked odd jobs trying to make ends meet, like picking peanuts from the vine for a local farmer, making a dollar or two a bushel.

Her children learned to be resourceful as well as they grew up, planting a garden to supplement what they purchased with food stamps. They would also hunt deer and hogs, and they raised chickens.

In the summer, they relied on a nearby summer feeding site to supplement the free breakfast and lunch they would receive at school, which helped some.

For the school year, Roman’s mom counted on knowing that her two boys were getting breakfast and lunch at school. They qualified for free meals because they were below the poverty line. But frequently, they weren’t receiving them, for the same reason many kids go without those meals today: the stigma of being poor.

“I was too embarrassed to walk past all the kids who had their fast food meals or breakfast from home to be the poor kid that went to the cafeteria to eat the free breakfast. I would be starving, but lunch would roll around, and it was the same song. Lunch would be even more crowded than breakfast, and I would often skip the meal rather than have to wait in line and be the poor kid who didn’t have to pay. Our days began at 6:00 a.m. and ended when we got home around 4:30 p.m.,” Roman said. “I would not have eaten a single bite of food unless it was something that a teacher had provided to the class. This went on from second grade through my high school years.”

While the hunger didn’t keep him from doing well in school, it did make focusing during class difficult. “There were times when my stomach would just be growling so much,” Roman said. “That’s all you could focus on. It would drown out the voice of the teacher almost. It was so overwhelming, a gnawing sensation—distraction doesn’t do it justice.”

Roman kept this feeling a secret from almost everyone. His friends and classmates sat next to him each day, not realizing he was hungry. “Obviously I wasn’t dressed in designer clothes, the best of the best, like a lot of the popular kids were. I’ve got a crazy sense of humor though, and that took me a long way. But humor doesn’t cover up hunger, and a smile can only hide hunger for so long,” Roman said.

In high school, Roman found he could confide in his French teacher. “When he realized how dire the situation was, my teacher would bring an extra sandwich from home [for me].” Knowing that Roman would not have financial support from his family, his teacher encouraged him to look into the military. In 2004, he shipped out to basic training.

Roman during a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Roman during a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Roman served all over the world—Ireland, Germany, Turkey—but Afghanistan was his major combat deployment. He served as a counter-intelligence agent, specializing in foreign languages. He planned on getting a French degree when his term was up and becoming a French professor. But everything changed when he sustained injuries and contracted a food-borne illness while on duty. He was shipped back to the United States for treatment and began a long road to recovery.  He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury from the multiple blasts he was involved in. “I had to relearn how to talk, a lot of my motor skills, being able to walk and grab things. I had trouble knowing where I was. I even had trouble remembering how to get dressed.”

While overcoming these challenges, Roman’s injuries required him to be honorably discharged, and after his recovery, he couldn’t see himself sitting in a traditional classroom at a university. So he found a new mission to pursue: culinary school. He was accepted, and soon discovered his talent and passion for cooking. He was taught under Chef Lori Flynn, who connected him with No Kid Hungry. “They heard my story, and I was approached and asked if I’d be willing share it. And I did. We published a series of articles online about the struggles I’d faced and how my life came full-circle, and how I traded my military beret for my chef’s toque.”

Today, Roman commits all of his time to the No Kid Hungry campaign. “I’ve been blessed with talents in the kitchen and with a voice that can be heard and that people pay attention to, and it took me awhile to realize it and recognize it, but I’ve been given the blessing of a story, a testimonial if you will. Maybe I can be the change I wish to see in the world, and maybe it happens just one person at a time. I think that’s farther reaching than any million dollar [event] or fundraising dinner. It’s the ability to really connect.”

Roman during his audition for Hell's Kitchen, at an open casting session in Dallas, Tx.

Roman during his audition for Hell’s Kitchen, at an open casting session in Dallas, Texas.

Exciting things are in store for Roman. He was recently contacted by a casting associate from “Hell’s Kitchen,” a popular reality TV show that puts chefs to the test in weekly competitions. It hasn’t been revealed whether or not he will be in the cast for the upcoming season. But if he is chosen, Roman is well aware of the potential awareness it could bring to No Kid Hungry and hunger in America.

“I think that our problem [in solving hunger] is awareness and access to these kids. If I can take what was a negative and trying period of time in my family’s life, and share that story to where it benefits others—if one kid is fed throughout his or her experience in school, and able to get a fresh start each day with a full stomach, throughout the summers and the academic semesters, and make their way through high school and college—if one kid is affected by me being able to share my story, then that’s worth it all.”

We highlight Roman’s story as part of our four-week breakfast awareness campaign, TwEAT Your Breakfast. Every child deserves access to a nutritious start to the day. Though many schools are implementing innovative programs, barriers still exist. Raise awareness and #tweatyourbreakfast to @Texas_Hunger through Oct. 11. (See this blog for more information.)

Written by: Ashley Yeaman, Social Media & Communications Coordinator, The Texas Hunger Initiative

Photos courtesy of: Roman Coley Davis

TwEAT Your Breakfast. Create awareness.

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It’s back-to-school time! Heading back to the classroom provides a routine for students and their parents, but it also marks the start of a busier schedule. Gone are the carefree days of summer—it’s back to homework and school events, early mornings and late evenings.

While early mornings can be especially hectic, many of us realize the importance of fueling up with breakfast each day before heading out the door. Whether we choose to eat breakfast is up to us.

But many children don’t have a choice.

In a recent national survey from Share Our Strength, more than 1,000 K-8 public school teachers expressed increasing concern about hunger in their classrooms. Seventy-three percent said they teach students who come to school hungry because there isn’t enough food at home.

A teacher from Florida who took the survey pulled one of her students aside when she noticed his continuous lack of focus in class.

“He began to cry and told me he couldn’t help it, he was just so hungry. It turns out the only meal he ate every day was his free lunch at school. His family couldn’t afford breakfast or dinner.”

In the 2010-2011 school year, more than 20 million students nationwide ate a free or reduced-price lunch at school, according to Share Our Strength.  But less than half of those students, 9.8 million, had a free or reduced-price breakfast.  In Texas, only 59.7 percent of students who ate lunch also had breakfast at school.

What accounts for the difference? There are many reasons, but research shows that one of the greatest barriers to School Breakfast participation is the stigma attached to the program. Eating breakfast at school is seen as something only the students in poverty do.

This is why alternative models to the traditional school breakfast program are so important, including the Universal Breakfast Program, Breakfast in the Classroom, and Grab n’ Go Breakfast.  And these programs are proving to be a success.  In the 2012-2013, the number of students eating school breakfast daily jumped to 13.5 percent nationwide.

But it’s still not enough. There are still millions of children in Texas and across the nation who are not starting their day with the needed nutrients. They are going throughout the school day lacking the energy and focus to tackle their studies, and it’s hurting their academic achievement—the stepping stone, in many cases, to a better future.

Help us bring awareness to the importance of breakfast by participating in our TwEAT Your Breakfast Photo Contest from September 11 to October 11. We want to see what you’re fueling up with in the mornings! Maybe it’s a yogurt parfait on-the-go, a breakfast burrito at your favorite food truck, a leftover slice of cold pizza, or a gourmet meal. Whatever’s on your plate, snap a photo and tweet it to us! (#tweatyourbreakfast @Texas_Hunger)

The contest runs for four weeks, and you can enter as many times as you want.  Four photos will be recognized each Friday (starting September 20) on our social media outlets, and of those, three photos will be specially recognized on our blog (with a mini-feature on each of our winners) at the end of the contest. But more importantly, you’ll be helping bring awareness to the importance of making breakfast accessible to all students.

Stay tuned! Along with the photo contest, we’ll be sharing breakfast facts on our social media outlets throughout the month, and posting blogs about access to breakfast for children each week.

Entering the contest is easy, and you can check out the full contest terms and conditions below. What will you TwEAT for breakfast?

Post and photo by: Ashley Yeaman, Social Media & Communications Coordinator, Texas Hunger Initiative

How to enter:

1.   Use Twitter to share a photo of what you’re having for breakfast. (Let creativity rule!)

2.   Tag your post with the hashtag #tweatyourbreakfast and tweet to @Texas_Hunger.

3.   Follow the Texas Hunger Initiative on Twitter (@Texas_Hunger).

Entries will be judged on creativity by the Texas Hunger Initiative’s communications team.  Four photos will be highlighted on our social media outlets each Friday. Of those photos highlighted, three will be chosen for special recognition on our blog at the end of the contest period.

TwEAT Your Breakfast Photo Contest Terms and Conditions

By entering the TwEAT Your Breakfast Photo Contest, participants agree to the Terms and Conditions listed below.

1.     The contest is open to any individual 13 years of age or older at the time of entry.

2.     The contest begins on September 11, 2013, and ends on October 11, 2013.

3.     Contestants may submit any number of photos, so long as each is different in nature and of their own composition.

4.     Entries must be viewable to the public and tagged with the contest hashtag (#tweatyourbreakfast). They must also be tweeted to (@Texas_Hunger).

5.     Contestants must be Texas Hunger Initiative Twitter (@Texas_Hunger) followers.

6.     Each week, four photos will be chosen to be highlighted on the Texas Hunger Initiative’s social media outlets. After the contest ends, three photos will be chosen, which will be featured on the Texas Hunger Initiative’s WordPress blog.

7.     The owners of the three photos chosen will be contacted via Twitter for a brief interview to accompany their winning photo on the blog.

8.     Winners agree to have his/her entry featured on http://www.texashunger.org and THI’s other social media outlets (including but not limited to Twitter, Facebook & our WordPress blog) and used for either educational or promotional purposes in the future.

9.     Contest is not sponsored or associated with Twitter. Contestants agree to all Twitter terms of service.

 

 

 

An Exciting Week for THI: Legislation Moves Forward, Kids’ Voices are Heard

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Children from Elsa England Elementary in Round Rock and Travis Heights Elementary in Austin were able to meet Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. shortly after the Breakfast Bill passed the Texas House of Representatives.

It has been an exciting week for the Texas Hunger Initiative. Last Thursday, Senate Bill 376, the “Breakfast Bill,” passed the Texas House of Representatives and now moves forward to the governor’s office. And yesterday, House Bill 749 passed through the Senate Committee on Government Organization with a unanimous vote. In this bill, it is proposed that the Texas Hunger Initiative and the Texas Department of Agriculture would work together on a five-year plan to increase participation in summer food programs.

It really is history in the making.  These two bills have the potential to feed hundreds of thousands of hungry children throughout the state.

Children from Elsa England Elementary in Round Rock and Travis Heights Elementary in Austin witnessed history unfold last week with the announcement of SB 376 passing the House, as they stood on the steps of the State Capitol for their Rally Against Childhood Hunger.

Funded by the Sodexo grant, Elsa England Elementary third-graders have been tackling childhood hunger all year, raising funds, giving presentations to younger students, and even writing persuasive letters to President Obama.

For their teacher and primary organizer of the project, Rachael Brunson, childhood hunger is an issue that hits close to home.

“There were many, many days when I did not have enough to eat,” Brunson said in an interview with TV station KXAN in Austin. “When you don’t have enough to eat, you find it hard to concentrate on anything except where you’re going to get your next meal.”

Childhood hunger is a huge problem in Texas today, affecting one in four Texas children, according to a study from Feeding America.

Ricky, a student at Travis Heights Elementary, brings a face to these statistics.

“I myself have suffered from hunger,” he said during the rally, standing on top of a crate to reach the microphone. “It affected my grades and I went all the time not knowing where my next meal would come from. I don’t want any other kids to suffer like I did.”

Because of stories like Ricky’s, childhood hunger became the issue the students rallied around.  Elsa England students partnered with students from Travis Heights Elementary to prepare for their rally at the Capitol, months before the event. They rehearsed chants, brainstormed T-shirt designs, and created colorful posters and banners.

Students came to the Capitol ready for their rally, armed with chants like “Kids should never be famished!” and posters urging the public to “Get involved now!”

Speakers included Jeremy Everett, director of the Texas Hunger Initiative, Joanna Linden, CDO of Capitol Area Food Bank, and Dr. Jesús H. Chávez, superintendent of Round Rock ISD.

Linden said her work puts her directly in the front lines of hungry children, and shows her how crucial the issue is in Texas.

“I get to see many different faces of hunger every single day, and as a mom of two daughters of my own, the thing that disturbs me the most is the face of a hungry child. Two out of every five of our clients are kids,” Linden said. “Food is the fuel for children to learn and develop every single day. Hunger limits a child’s potential and their opportunity to grow.”

Linden was inspired by the enthusiasm of the students, teachers and all involved in the rally.

“They inspire the work that we do to make sure that kids are fed. Through partnerships, through people getting together, we truly are able to make a difference,” Linden said.

After the Breakfast Bill passed, Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. spoke to the students on how crucial the legislation will be for children across Texas.

“Studies over and over again have indicated to us that if a child eats a nutritious meal, then he or she will learn more, and that’s what we want,” Lucio, Jr. said. “You will be our leaders of tomorrow, and we want you to be healthy. We want a healthy workforce, healthy families, and we want all of you to lead us in the right direction—our state, our country, our world.”

Round Rock Superintendent Chávez hopes the rally, and the hunger project, will have long-term impact on students.

“It shows them the difference that they individually can make, and the power of a group and working together,” he said.

For Daniel, a student at Elsa England Elementary, the project and rally have made him more aware of issues affecting children in his community and around the world.

“I’ve loved everything we’ve done. I knew it would make me a better person, because it’s a big problem that I’m solving,” he said.

Daniel has plans to work in a career where he can continue the fight against hunger when he grows up, in a “place where there’s a lot of hungry kids.”

But let’s hope he doesn’t have to do so. Let’s hope that our work, the work of similar organizations, and Texas legislation can wipe hunger off the map, so students like Daniel can live in a state where childhood hunger doesn’t exist.

Written by: Ashley Yeaman, Social Media & Communications Coordinator, Texas Hunger Initiative

Photo by: Charis Dietz, Director of Communications, Texas Hunger Initiative

Another Reason To Hate Monday

We’ve all had awful cafeteria experiences during our childhood. Irving ISD located outside of Dallas, Texas, is changing this less-than-stellar reputation by revamping how they serve food to their students. More importantly, they address the growing issue of children coming to school hungry and recognize that a hungry child cannot learn.

March 4-8 was National School Breakfast Week. Of the more than 2.3 million Texas students who received a free or reduced-price lunch at school in 2011-2012, only 59.7% participated in the school breakfast program. Why is this gap occurring? Breakfast has proven to be incredibly beneficial in the classroom. It increases classroom participation and test scores and decreases the number of school nurse visits and tardiness, to name a few positives.

The day for the cafeteria staff at Irving ISD begins before many of us get out of bed. One particular morning, the Texas Hunger Initiative (THI) was observing a kindergarten class, and the whole process was incredibly seamless. Michael Rosenberger, director of Food and Nutrition for Irving ISD, informed us that this is possible due to the incredible logistical work that the entire staff puts into the program. The lens from which they craft their Breakfast in the Classroom program is designed to benefit the students the best way they can in order to promote a “community of learners.”

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Amy Griesemer, a Cafeteria Supervisor for Irving ISD showed us a behind the scenes look into their school cafeteria where we were able to sample some lunch menu items. The salads were recently revamped to be as fresh and look as appealing as possible. As a result, they have seen an increase in children eating salads by over 400%. The kitchen was redesigned so that the students could see the food being prepared, making the process more interactive and educational. The food was nothing like I had ever eaten in a school cafeteria; it was tasty, balanced and healthy.

School cafeteria guidelines have changed to include new nutritional requirements. Students are now required to consume higher quantities of fruits and vegetables in their diet. However, many school administrators feel that although schools should do their best to make fresh fruits and vegetables available, offering food students don’t want to eat results in more food thrown away. THI believes the solution requires a two-fold approach. The choices students make at home ultimately influence the choices they make in the cafeteria. On our visit we were pleased to see that a vast majority of the kids were eating all of the food on their plate. Another issue is that some schools simply don’t have the capacity to store additional fruits and vegetables in their cafeteria. Schools that were built decades ago have limited freezer and refrigeration space and little room for expansion.

Texas has one of the highest child poverty rates in the nation, one in four children in Texas are going hungry each day. Unfortunately for some, school is the only guaranteed meal these children receive during the week. In the Dallas ISD area, children were coming to school literally starving after weekends. On Monday mornings they would eat as much as they could…so much they would throw up. “Throw-up Mondays” became a term tossed around the school’s administration.

We can’t go on like this. The first step in solving a problem is recognizing that there is one. Irving ISD didn’t need to reinvent the wheel; instead, they used resources already in place to help solve a growing problem. We can learn from their example and by doing so help to reduce the number of hungry kids we have in our school district.

Written by Tariq Thowfeek
Public Affairs & Communications Specialist
Texas Hunger Initiative

Resources
Texas School Breakfast Report Card 2012
Texas Hunger Initiative