With the usual fanfare, most of America's public schools are back in session. And as usual, there is that ugly problem: Many children in our classrooms are hungry.
We Americans, the world's richest population, should be ashamed that some 16 million of our children regularly go to school with empty stomachs.
Ensuring that all children have adequate, nutritious and affordable food should be a national priority. We should not let children go hungry regardless of their parents' circumstances or shortcomings. And we should not let our politics blind us to the suffering of these young victims.
As it is with many other problems we face, our public schools are the places where hunger is most visible and where its ill effects are acutely demonstrated. Sixty-five percent of our public school teachers, one of our most maligned groups, are witnesses to the damages of hunger. And many of our teachers spend their own money to buy food for their students.
A new survey, "Hunger in Our Schools: Share Our Strength's Teachers Report 2012," shows that teachers worry that hunger prevents children from learning at their best. The survey was conducted by Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry campaign of 1,000 K-8 public school teachers nationwide. Share Our Strength is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in the nation's capital.
Nine out of 10 teachers surveyed said a healthy school breakfast is essential to academic achievement. Ninety-six percent said breakfast helps with concentration; 89 percent credit breakfast with better academic performance; 73 said students who eat breakfast have better classroom behavior.
Granted, teacher responses alone are not scientific, but empirical evidence, cited by Share Our Strength researchers and other scholars, supports the teachers' observations.
The organization's studies show, for example, that children who skip breakfast have slower memory recall, make more errors and are more likely to be absent or tardy and to repeat a grade. Other studies indicate that children who eat breakfast perform better on standardized tests, make fewer mistakes in math and show a general increase in math and reading scores. These kids also have fewer discipline problems and visit school nurses less often.
"When students are hungry and distracted, they're not learning," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. "To set kids up for academic success, we must make sure they're getting the healthy food they need at breakfast and lunch so they can concentrate in the classroom throughout the day."
Share Our Strength and U.S. Agriculture Department officials encourage school administrators and teachers to learn to recognize the signs of hunger.
According to the organization's research, a hungry child may suffer from poor health; feel sick or tired or often sleep in class; have difficulty with math and language skills; be more aggressive and fight with classmates and teachers; feel anxious and have difficulty concentrating; exhibit slower memory recall; underperform and have poor grades; and frequently miss school or arrive late.
Fortunately, Congress passed the bipartisan Child Nutrition Improvement and Integrity Act that improved the process for kids to qualify for free or reduced-priced school lunches and expanded a program giving local produce to schools. Still, the mission to end childhood hunger remains a hodgepodge of efforts by federal, state and local governments and nonprofits.
Leaders of Share Our Strength are wisely building partnerships with local antihunger organizations, government agencies, corporations and heads of education and business and political groups. Such partnerships can focus on increasing participation in federal nutrition programs and obtain easier access to federal funds to feed our children.
By all indications, this model is succeeding. All 50 states now have No Kid Hungry campaigns. A valuable lesson of this collaboration is that earnest people who see themselves as stakeholders can find ways to solve difficult problems for the greater good — perhaps even eliminating childhood hunger.