This op-ed was published Saturday, April 19 in the Roanoke Times.
It happens every school morning. More than 200,000 Virginia schoolchildren, in thousands of elementary, junior high and high schools sit down for a healthy, hot breakfast. It helps them learn. It brings peace and quiet to the classroom. And, in the long run, it helps our state's economy prosper and America become more competitive in the global marketplace.
Everyone remembers the school lunch program as an icon of growing up. Either we were in it, or our friends or classmates were in it, or at the very least, it was part of our school.
Why healthy breakfasts? Research shows that the impact of childhood hunger extends beyond the health, emotional and learning challenges of hungry kids.
We know that when kids are hungry, they struggle to learn. When kids don't learn, they struggle in life. And in Virginia, an estimated 300,000 children are at risk of going to bed hungry – the breakfast program doesn't reach everyone who needs it.
When kids aren't hungry, we're all better off. Providing school breakfasts creates a more conducive learning environment for everyone because well-fed kids are better behaved. It provides better education results because kids who eat breakfast at school do better academically. Well-fed kids do better, go on to have more success, attend college and get better-paying jobs.
In Virginia, schools are at the forefront not just when it comes to imaginative, innovative approaches to making their school breakfast and lunch programs work, but also making sure they are nutritious and popular.
For example, here are some innovative approaches Virginia has taken with regard to its lunch program, and also a snack program run in the state's northern suburbs:
* An elementary school in Chesapeake features a "vegetable of the month." The principal and other adult figures known to the students are shown on televisions in the lunchroom eating and enjoying that featured vegetable. A side benefit is that exposing children to new fruits and vegetables has increased the number of salads ordered daily by the students.
* In Manassas, schools have integrated the use of whole grains in both breads and pastas in all cafeterias. And school officials have eliminated all deep fryers from kitchen appliances – meaning no fried foods will be served.
* Alexandria City Public Schools provides all preschoolers and kindergartners with a free, nutritious snack every day. The snack consists of fresh fruit or veggies or a whole grain item that is packed in baskets. Teachers pick them up and serve when ready. Children learn about and taste familiar and less familiar items such as different varieties of apples, baby carrots, fresh figs, sliced cucumbers and Asian pears. Teachers integrate the foods into their lesson plans, and students experience new foods and receive information that will help them develop healthy eating habits.
As good as Virginia is doing, we can do better. Example: Some advocates of school breakfast have proposed serving school breakfast to all children, for two reasons. First, it reduces the stigma for those who are part of the program. And second, studies show that all students benefit from school breakfasts, not just those who are from food-insecure homes.
But whatever we do, this we know: Hunger is a solvable problem, and our country has a history of bipartisan support to address it. We can provide the tools to reduce it and, ultimately, eliminate it, especially right here in the U.S. The school breakfast and lunch programs are two of those tools.