One in five metro-east kids goes hungry; what can schools do?

News-DemocratJanuary 17, 2014 

— One in five children in the metro-east does not know where his next meal is coming from, and Foodbank is hoping to change that.

The St. Louis-region nonprofit held its first metro-east summit on school breakfasts Friday in Collinsville, hoping to encourage some of the schools that do not currently offer breakfast to do so.

While many kids receive free or reduced lunch at school, that is often the only meal that student will have for the day, according to spokeswoman Bethany Prange.

"A snow day can mean that student gets no food that day," she said. "We hear from a lot of school administrators and lunch workers that a lot of students are receiving only school lunches."

But when only 60 percent of metro-east school districts offer breakfast at all, that can mean a lot of hungry kids. In 2004, Illinois ranked 50th in the nation for offering school breakfasts, according to Suzy Lee of the Greater Chicago Food Depository. Since then, the state has risen to 36th in the nation, but still only 44 percent of kids who qualify for free or reduced lunch also get breakfast.

"The economy is an issue, but hunger has always been a quiet issue," Prange said. "People are embarrassed to ask for help, but we're trying to change that stigma. ... After they pay for rent, utilities and medicine, there's sometimes nothing left."

Lee said it is important to tie together the social and educational impact of nutrition: Kids who have breakfast score 17.5 percent higher on tests, show better brain development and are better able to focus on schoolwork. Kids who go hungry are more likely to be held back in school and have discipline problems, she said.

In fact, Illinois teachers spend an average of $37 a month out of their own pockets to buy food for their students, Lee said.

And it's important that they eat the right foods -- it's cheaper to eat junk food than healthy food, Prange said, but good nutrition has an impact on learning as well.

In the metro-east, one in five children has "food insecurity," which means he or she does not know where the next meal is coming from, according to Kelly Hall, school breakfast coordinator for Foodbank. In addition to distributing food to more than 500 food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters in their 26-county area, Foodbank offers grants and partnerships to help schools develop breakfast programs within their strained budgets.

"We're trying to find a balance between food that kids will eat, and also has good nutrition," Hall said.

One such grant funded a "grab-n-go" breakfast program at Granite City schools, which began this year. Food services coordinator Gloria Harrison said they found a lot of high schoolers in particular did not want the stigma of a free breakfast in the cafeteria, but also had nothing to eat in the morning. "The kids are in a hurry, and they want to be with their peers," she said.

The "grab-n-go" breakfasts are "very popular," Harrison said. It launched this fall, so it's too soon to say whether it has had an impact on educational development. But it has almost doubled the number of Granite City kids eating breakfast, Harrison said.

Foodbank hopes to increase the number of schools offering a breakfast program, Prange said. In addition, they partner with Twigs, a program that sets up in low-income areas and offers sack lunches to kids on free or reduced lunch during vacations and the summer, so that those kids still get at least one meal a day.

Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at edonald@bnd.com or 239-2507.

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