I’ve always said that state government’s top priorities are the protection and the education of its people. And one of the simplest ways to improve our students’ academic performance is to make sure they’ve had breakfast.
Unfortunately, Arkansas has a high rate of hunger, and preventing childhood hunger is not an easy task. So in 2010, my office partnered with the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance and Share Our Strength to end childhood hunger in our state. Multiple feeding programs have been put in place, including some that provide breakfast in school classrooms. Today, school breakfast programs serve 55 percent of Arkansas students, which is more than the national average. In fact, Arkansas is one of the top 10 states in the nation when it comes to increasing school breakfast participation among low-income kids.
This week, I participated in a panel discussion about these programs. We heard from an elementary school principal who noted that since her school started providing breakfast in the classroom, test scores have improved, illnesses have decreased, and discipline problems are much fewer. And while the kids eat together, they also learn about nutrition. Through breakfast programs for children, we are also teaching good eating habits. So in addition to solving a humanitarian issue, we are also improving their knowledge about nutrition and good health.
As actor and No Kid Hungry spokesperson Jeff Bridges pointed out during the discussion, obesity is the flipside of the malnutrition coin. Rates of obesity, diabetes, poor access to grocery stores, poverty rates, unemployment, and hunger are all interconnected. Each June, when schools are not in session, it becomes much more difficult to feed hungry children. Without the meals that had been available to them at school, students must rely on an entirely different system to access adequate and nourishing food. In Arkansas, we’ve been working to build a feeding system to solve this problem, and we’ve been making huge strides.
In fact, last summer, Arkansas served an additional 1.6 million meals than the year before. This astounding increase was larger than those in any other state. This growth was hard-won and required some innovative and inventive methods. One community even used a bookmobile to deliver its meals. At a recent news conference announcing the State’s achievement, a representative of the federal government gave Arkansas high praise for our unprecedented success.
Nonetheless, we’ve got a long way to go. We’re only feeding a fraction of the children in the summer that we feed during the school year. Additionally, Arkansas remains the state with the highest rate of food insufficiency. One in five Arkansans still does not know where his or her next meal will come from.
As we prepare for the upcoming summer, our goal is to feed 93,000 kids through our Summer Food Service Program. Yet some counties in our State do not have a single summer feeding site. Through the Arkansas Department of Human Services, nonprofit organizations can provide volunteers to serve summer meals to children at no cost. If you’d like to become involved, contact the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance. By ending hunger, we can begin to realize the full potential of all Arkansans.