Although they have sharp differences about unions, charter schools, tenure, and other controversial matters, there is at least one issue on which America’s teachers are in almost unanimous agreement: being well fed is critical to academic achievement. A new national survey by Lake Research shows that 98% of teachers believe there is a strong connection between eating a healthy breakfast and a student’s ability to concentrate, behave, and perform academically.
That statistic may not surprise you but here’s some that will: 65% of K-8 teachers have children in their classrooms who regularly come to school hungry because they have not had enough to eat at home, and 61% of these teachers use their own salaries each month to buy food supplies for the hungry children in their class. Overall, six in ten teachers say hunger in the classroom increased last year. So how did we get to this distressing point? Not by design, but by neglect.
In fact political leaders of an earlier era – Democrats and Republicans – worked together in precisely the kind of bipartisan fashion we long for today, to create school lunch and school breakfast programs, and summer meals for when the schools are closed, to ensure that low income children would not be too distracted by hunger to learn. The problem is that these programs are not being fully utilized today. In most states only 40% of the kids who get school lunch are also getting the school breakfast for which they are eligible and only 15% are enrolled in summer feeding programs. That’s not because children and families aren’t aware of the programs, it’s because school districts and communities have not set them up in ways conducive to their participation.
Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign is going state by state to identify barriers to participation and eliminate them. This is the most immediate and cost efficient way to reduce hunger and improve educational performance. President Obama has made investment in American competitiveness the hallmark of his economic plan and budget. That competitiveness in the global economy begins with children in your neighborhood starting their school day well fed and ready to learn.
Hopefully we are not so acclimated to political divisiveness that we fail to recognize political unity when it is right in front of us. On the rare occasion that a group as diverse and divided as America’s public school teachers come together with one voice, we should listen with special care. They see our children in all lights and all seasons: healthy and strong – but also vulnerable and voiceless. If we hope to hold teachers to higher and higher standards of accountability, the least we can do is keep the promise made generations ago to send them children who are fed, fit and healthy in body and mind.