America's State of the Union: Childhood Hunger 2014

Connecting the Dots Between Hunger, Education, and Poverty

(The full text of the State of the Union: Childhood Hunger 2014 can be found on the No Kid Hungry website.)

"Education is the only sure-fire way to eradicate poverty," wrote Harlem Children's Zone's Geoff Canada in the New York Times earlier this month. I couldn't agree more. But what are the sure-fire ways to eradicate barriers to educational opportunity? One is providing the food and nutrition children need to concentrate, learn and excel in school.

Canada didn't mention hunger in his piece. If history is a guide, neither will President Obama in his upcoming State of the Union speech, notwithstanding his expected focus on reducing inequality and poverty and increasing economic growth. Those objectives are complex, but they include a common, key element which is not: ending childhood hunger. It may be our most solvable problem. Solving it will make numerous other national goals more achievable.

That raises the question: Why so little discussion of hunger among national leaders? I keep thinking back to the mid-19th century when Joseph Lister transformed surgery by discovering that antiseptic sterilization of clothes, hands, and instruments dramatically reduced infection. For years smart and influential leaders of the medical profession scoffed at germs that seemed "invisible" and even took pride in the unwashed stains on their operating gowns, as a badge of experience. Even when they did their best work, patients often died from unnecessary infections.

A similar failure of imagination applies today. Many policymakers and education and anti-poverty advocates overlook a growing body of research demonstrating the devastating toll hunger takes on every aspect of learning from test scores to attendance. Just ask Maryland Principal Sean McElheney who learned that hunger, not apathy, was the reason for a student writing "I Don't Care" in a standardized test.

Last year Joe Echevarria, the CEO of the consulting firm Deloitte, presented research showing math scores can average 17.5 percent higher for students who get school breakfast. Annual attendance rates also consistently improve. The anecdotal evidence tells the same tale; principals tell us the connection between school breakfast, attendance and reading on grade level (a relied-upon predictor of drop-out or graduation) is strong.

Just as doctors saw their best efforts undermined by preventable infections of whose genesis they were unaware, educators today risk their reform efforts being undermined by the unacknowledged toll hunger takes.

Leaders have a responsibility to connect the dots. Current efforts to close the educational achievement gap that are focused only on teacher tenure, testing, and charter schools are just not comprehensive enough. If we are serious about strengthening education to boost economic growth and reduce poverty, policymakers need to take the needs of the whole child into account, especially the most basic need of all: having enough to eat. In advance of President Obama's State of the Union speech next week, we have prepared the
, showing how far we need to continue to go and steps that will take us there to end this solvable problem. Specifically, policymakers should:
  • Implement universal breakfast-after-the-bell policies so that all students start their day well fed and ready to learn. States such as Maryland, Arkansas, and Colorado have led the way in achieving these goals, and our federal government should support the expansion of such efforts in other states.
  • Revise summer feeding programs in order to ensure kids are getting enough healthy food in the months when school is closed. Today, the structure of the summer food program leaves as many as 80 percent of eligible children unable to access healthy meals during the summer months, and parents are spending about300 more a month of food during the summer to make up this gap.
  • Enable more schools to take advantage of the opportunity to provide healthy food to children after school to improve students' ability to do their homework and participate in important after school enrichment activities including athletics.
  • Continue to fund and support the WIC program, which helps pregnant women, infants and little kids get the nutrition during the years of a child's life most important to brain development.
  • Protect funding for SNAP, our most effective and most powerful anti-hunger program for children, helping 47 million Americans put a healthy, nutritious meal on the table.
President Obama, the Congress, our nation's governors, and education advocates risk snatching defeat from the jaws of victory if they continue to ignore the direct and powerful connections between childhood hunger and education/inequality/poverty. By focusing on the thing they would most likely succeed at -- ending child hunger -- they would increase the odds of success with a range of education goals. Anyone that doubts these connections or hasn't seen the studies can find out for themselves. Just walk into a school and ask any hungry child.