Hunger: Myth vs. Reality

Myth: It's okay for kids to skip breakfast if they get a free lunch.

Reality: The old adage is true: breakfast is the most important meal of the day, particularly for children. For schoolchildren, missing breakfast diminishes the ability to recall and use newly acquired information, verbal fluency, and control of attention.1 In addition, one study even links reduced rates of suspension with increased breakfast consumption.

While breakfast is important for all children, some children don't have the same access to adequate, wholesome meals as other children. The National School Breakfast Program (NSBP) is an important means for helping low-income children meet their morning nutritional needs. Research has found that increasing NBSP participation is associated with a reduction in child hunger and improved nutrition, school attendance, emotional functioning, and math grades.

In addition, there is a positive correlation between universally-free (free meal to all kids in spite of ability or inability to pay) school breakfast participation and academic performance, as well as observed decreased behavioral and emotional symptoms.

Children who participated in a universally-free breakfast program, and did so for at least 80% of the school year, had math grades that averaged almost a whole letter grade higher than the grades of students who ate school breakfast for only 20% or less of the school year.

Myth: Too many ineligible children are receiving meals on my tax dollar.

Reality: There is no evidence to substantiate the claim that many non-eligible children are receiving school meals. In fact, studies suggest that the number of Americans eligible for many supplemental programs is dramatically underestimated and that the programs are underutilized.

In the past, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has attempted to implement costly programs to substantiate children's participation in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) by asking families to provide verification of their children's eligibility. During the 1986-1987 school year, the USDA conducted an income verification project and found that of the 10.1% who did not respond to the request for verification and were subsequently cut off from the program, 81.3% were still income-eligible.

Studies show that many families either did not receive the request for verification or did not understand it. Using the same methodology, another study found that the number of Americans eligible for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) was greatly underestimated.

Verification requirements should not be so onerous that they prevent program participation by households that are actually eligible to participate.

Myth: Children can't be hungrier in the summer than they are during the school year.

Reality: In 2001, 46% of all pantries, 68% of all kitchens, and 29% of all shelters reported seeing many more children in the summer months.8 Many of these children are also enrolled in federal nutrition programs; 63% of households with children served by America's Second Harvest's agencies regularly use the school lunch program and 50% of households with children served by America's Second Harvest use NBSP.9 Statistics show, however, that 14% of households with children served by America's Second Harvest participate in summer food programs.

During fiscal year 2002, almost 16 million children ate free or reduced-price lunches through the School Lunch Program. Yet during the same fiscal year, an average of 1.8 million children participated in the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) daily.

Myth: It's impossible for child hunger to exist when obesity is a growing national concern.

Reality: Obesity has become a serious public health problem among American kids. The problem affects children from upscale suburbs to inner cities to remote, rural areas.

At the same time, hunger is still a very real problem for children in our country. In fact, the same year that a study estimated that 15% of children and adolescents ages 6-19 years are overweight, 12 the federal government found that nearly 13 million American children were food insecure.

Through our network of more than 200 affiliate food banks and food-rescue organizations, America's Second Harvest is helping those children - whose faces are as diverse as the faces of all American children - access food and nutrition education so they can make healthy choices. If achieving a healthy diet is difficult for families and children with adequate resources, it is even tougher for those families where food availability is a problem.

Article courtesy Feeding America