Our state legislators disappointed us again. They failed to make healthy breakfast for our kids a priority. The Washington State Senate and House couldn’t agree on a bill known as Breakfast After the Bell. If enacted, this legislation would have ensured that thousands of low-income children have access to breakfast before they start their school day. One in five kids in Washington lives in a food insecure household. How do we expect these children to focus on their studies when all they can think about is their grumbling stomach?
School breakfast programs already exist. It’s not a new concept. But there are barriers that prevent children from accessing them. Students often don’t have the time to eat breakfast between the time their bus drops them at the school and class. There is also stigma associated with getting breakfast in the cafeteria. Breakfast After the Bell addresses some of these barriers by allowing schools to serve breakfast after school starts and by making it available to everyone. It’s a simple fix. It is efficient. And it doesn’t cost the state anything, except some minimal startup funding.
So, what could possibly be the justification for not passing this bill for three years in a row? The kind of rhetoric we hear against this bill is troubling: Government shouldn’t be in the business of feeding kids. Why should rich kids, who can pay for their meals, get a free breakfast? Free breakfast will contribute to the obesity problem.
You can judge the merits of these arguments yourself. All I can say is that the question of whether schools should serve breakfast has been settled. The research is quite clear. Far from creating childhood obesity, school breakfasts help protect against it. I have no comments for those who think it is OK to starve low-income children because the program might inadvertently help a few rich kids eat twice.
There are valid arguments to be made against the bill. One of the things that I worry about is making school breakfasts more like fast-food. Two of the most common ways to implement Breakfast After the Bell are grab-and-go breakfast and breakfast in the classroom. Both of these delivery mechanisms increase the reliance on prepackaged food, instead of giving children the time to eat a freshly prepared wholesome breakfast. Eating breakfast is not a chore. A large part of healthy eating is eating mindfully, not just shoving something down the throat while doing another activity. That said, when the option is between going hungry or having a breakfast, the choice is clear. This bill is a step in the right direction, not an end in itself.
Research shows that schools with high breakfast participation have dramatically lower rates of suspension, expulsion and absenteeism. It’s good to have the backing of research data, but we don’t need a doctorate degree to understand that our bodies and minds are simply not meant to function without adequate nourishment, day after day, especially during the critical developmental period of childhood, not to mention the moral imperative to make sure that our children don’t go hungry.
At Hunger Intervention Program (HIP), we provide nutritious weekend meals to more than 200 students every week. We hear from students, teachers and parents what it means to have a healthy and filling start to the day. Some teachers and tutors tell us that they sometimes spend their own money to bring some snacks for their students so that they can focus on the classroom activities. Teachers understand the need for breakfast firsthand.
Our legislators missed another opportunity to end childhood hunger in our state this year. But it’s not the end of the road for this bill. Hunger is not going away, not unless we take some sincere measures. Next year, when this bill comes back, we’ll need to make sure that we don’t fail our children again.
Srijan Chakraborty is the executive director of Hunger Intervention Program (HIP), a nonprofit with the mission to increase food security for underserved populations in North King County.