Preventing Hunger in the Classroom
The face of hunger in the Texas classroom is no longer confined to low-income children. It is now readily found on children from middle- to high-income families.
All our efforts to develop an appropriate public school finance system, enrich curricula, enhance tutoring programs and purchase technological learning aids will miss the mark if a child is trying to learn on an empty stomach. And many are.
As chairman of the Joint Interim Committee on Nutrition and Health in Public Schools, I am also addressing research indicating that skipping breakfast is associated with a significantly higher risk of obesity among adults.
Generally people who do not eat breakfast get very hungry later on in the day and tend to overeat as a result--consuming additional calories.
Nutrition habits are formed early in life, so encouraging children to eat a healthy breakfast may prevent obesity in their adult years. And in a state recently pegged as having the highest number of overweight and obese children, we should seriously discuss implementing a universal feeding program in our public school system.
The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) reports that early morning school bus schedules, long commutes to jobs and nontraditional work hours make it difficult for families to prepare or sit down for a nutritious family breakfast. These situations affect families in every socio-economic level, including children who qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
Halfway through the morning, hunger pangs develop and attention diminishes. Study after study shows that students who eat school breakfast increase their math and reading scores, as well as improve their speed and memory in cognitive tests. Those who eat breakfast closer to class and test-taking time perform better on standardized tests than those who skip breakfast or even those who eat breakfast at home.
FRAC notes that eating a good breakfast at school boosts student achievement, reduces absenteeism, and improves student nutrition. A study by the Massachusetts General Hospital found that as children increased their participation in the school breakfast program, they showed improvement on a wide range of measures of social and academic functioning.
One of my highest legislative priorities is to implement a universal feeding program in every public school in Texas, or at least begin with a free statewide breakfast program. Already, 40 states have schools with universal breakfast programs.
The National School Lunch Program is available in more than 95 percent of schools nationwide. During the 2002-2003 school year, 8.2 million children participated in the School Breakfast Program. Of these, 7.6 million or 78.8 percent received free or reduced-price meals. Yet only 27.8 million participated in the National School Lunch Program, with 16 million or 57.5 percent of them receiving free or reduced price meals.
In Texas, 97.6 percent of public schools participate in the School Breakfast Program. In 2002-2003, schools were reimbursed $1.17 in federal funds for each free meal, $0.87 for each reduced price meal and $0.22 for each paid meal. Schools where 40 percent or more of the lunches served for the two prior years were free or reduced receive slightly higher reimbursements.
One inherent advantage to serving free meals is that schools save money by eliminating the labor involved in collecting, handling and verifying applications for discounted meals, as well as the collection of payments. And when all children in a school can participate in a universal meal program, the stigma associated with poverty is greatly lessened.
Another program sponsored by schools and other entities that I wholeheartedly applaud is the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). Through SFSP, children 18 or younger in low-income areas can receive free breakfasts and lunches. These meal sites are located in areas where 50 percent or more of the children are eligible for free or reduced-price meals under the National School Lunch Program.
The federally funded Summer Food Service Program is two-part: one sponsored by the Texas Department of Agriculture Seamless Program and the other by the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) Special Nutrition Programs.
In 2003, the average daily participation in the 87 meal sites under HHSC for Cameron County was 1,267, for Hidalgo 10,609, for Kleberg 546 and for Willacy 587.
The Seamless Summer Sponsors operated 147 meal sites in Cameron, Willacy and Hidalgo Counties. Already, 29 school districts and community organizations have applied to sponsor free meals this summer in Cameron, Hidalgo, Kenedy, Kleberg and Willacy counties.
The agencies administering these programs and the entities sponsoring them in the local communities are to be commended. Those of us who are blessed with plenty to eat should ensure that no child goes hungry in the classroom because of income, schedules or commutes, and outside the classroom because of sheer poverty. As always, if you have any input or questions regarding these or other matters, please do not hesitate to contact my office in Austin at 512-463-0127, Brownsville at 956-548-0227 and Weslaco at 956-968-9927.