"Don't you ever eat breakfast?" I asked my high school-aged brother as I was taking him to school one morning. "Nah," he replied, as do the majority of students today. In our hardworking society where parents are working long hours, rushing off to work in the morning, or even in severe cases, are simply not around, ensuring students get a hearty breakfast before school has been placed on the backburner. Even as adults, our bad habits have carried over into many of us failing to nourish our bodies first thing before work in the morning. Countless studies have proven the benefits of eating breakfast: greater mental clarity, being more awake, and even weight loss. Yet, we are failing to properly nourish our children's and our own bodies.
According to the survey "Hunger In Our Schools: Share Our Strength's Teachers Report 2012," which surveyed over 1,000 K-8 public school teachers nationwide, three out of every five teachers report that their students frequently come to school hungry. Furthermore, 56% of the teachers surveyed believe that the hunger problems in school are progressively getting worse. Yet, 95% of the teachers surveyed said that breakfast helps with increased concentration, better academic performance, and more positive behavior in the classroom.
As the United States of America is struggling to keep up with the education of other industrialized nations, it is essential that we are providing students with the tools they need to succeed, namely a balanced meal plan. So what can we do to make the meals our tax dollars pay for more accessible to students?
Sam, a student from a low income family, enters the cafeteria line to order his lunch for that Tuesday. The mid-grade hamburgers being served today don't exactly sound appetizing, but Sam hasn't eaten since yesterday's lunch at school, so he orders it anyway. He slides his tray down the rack patiently waiting his turn to pay for his meal. As he approaches the cashier, he looks behind him to see if anyone he knows is around. Sam receives free lunches because his parent's work four combined jobs, and unfortunately, this doesn't quite make the cut for the family. In an effort to quickly communicate to the cashier that he receives free lunches, he whispers quietly in her ear. None of Sam's friends receive free lunches, so Sam feels embarrassed when he has to be "different" and claim his free lunch. Some days, Sam doesn't want to feel different than his peers, so he doesn't eat at all; other days he bears the pain of being "that" student who receives free lunches. The process repeats day after day, slowly depleting Sam's sense of self-worth and dignity.
I'm sure all of us can remember a 'Sam' from when we were in primary school. In some schools there are lots of Sam's; in other schools there are only a few Sam's whose secret seems to spread even more quickly. Some Sam's have it even worse; they must go into a completely separate "free/reduced lunch" line to obtain their meal. Why are we doing this to students? Why are we constantly allowing students to be segregated from their peers? In many cases, students feel too ashamed to travel down the "free/reduced lunch" line or have to proclaim their economic standing to the lunch cashier. Then they are right back where they started: no nourishment. If students don't have nourishment, they cannot learn, and that creates a very large problem. This is not to say that free and reduced lunches are bad altogether; it is the way in which they are presented that is the problem.
Recently, more and more schools are beginning to offer free and reduced price breakfasts to students as well. Have you ever tried to learn algebra and Shakespeare when you have not eaten since lunch the previous day? A recent article published by NBC News's Education Nation details a trending program called "Breakfast After the Bell." This program, recently adopted by states such as New York, Arkansas, West Virginia, Vermont, and Colorado, requires participating schools to provide breakfast to every student either in first hour or as a "grab-and-go cart." Because every student receives this breakfast, there are no feelings of being ashamed while moving into a separate lunch line or communicating to the cashier. In many cases of schools that have implemented this program, each class has a family-style breakfast during first hour where students are responsible for passing out the meal, eating with manners, and communicating with their peers in a family-like atmosphere. Not only are students receiving a breakfast that will better enable them to learn, they are also learning communication skills and manners necessary for the real world.
While I obviously will argue for all schools to implement "Breakfast After the Bell" in some way based on their own state's resources, there also needs to be a change in the current way that students obtain their free and reduced lunches. While there is such a problem with bullying in schools, it is imperative that the students who receive free and reduced lunches are not singled out from the rest of their peers. Some schools have already begun to transfer over into pin-pad systems and other electronic namesystems that allow cashiers to tell if the student is eligible for a free or reduced lunch. However, many schools still use separate free and reduced lunch lines in addition to the age-old telling of the cashier that the student does not have to pay what everyone else does. Gone are the days of segregation in our classrooms. Segregation in the cafeteria should undoubtedly follow suit.
Hunger, regardless if it is in a student or in an adult, hinders learning and work ability. We are adding to this hunger if we do not create a safe environment in which students can nourish their bodies. Not only do we need to create breakfast opportunities in every school district, we also need to change the way in which students obtain their free and reduced lunches. Hunger is one of our worst enemies as a nation, whether it is in students or in adults. Creating a safe environment where students can obtain their meals is just a stepping stone to ending hunger. But remember adults and parents, you too will never reach your full potential without a well-balanced breakfast.