Spotlight Exclusives

To End Childhood Hunger We Need Political Will

Dorothy McAuliffe, Share Our Strength Dorothy McAuliffe, Share Our Strength, posted on

This election season, there are dozens of issues getting attention in the media. There is more at stake than any other time I can remember. But one issue that deserves a bigger spotlight and our urgent attention, especially in state governor’s races, is childhood hunger.

Nearly 13 million children live in “food insecure” households, where families cannot consistently afford to buy enough food to feed everyone. Nearly 250,000 of these children live in Virginia.

This hunger is mostly invisible to the outside world. But to parents and kids, it’s bare pantries and empty refrigerators, and the unbearable emotional and physical pain and stigma that comes with lack of food. I’ve met families who, after paying for rent, utility bills, medicine, school shoes, child care and a tank of gas to get to work, simply don’t have enough left over for food. I’ve met mothers and older siblings who skip meals so the younger children have something to eat before bedtime.

As a mom (and a human being), these stories break my heart. As First Lady, I decided to do something about it.

In 2013, during my husband’s campaign for governor, I met with Billy Shore, founder of the national anti-poverty nonprofit Share Our Strength, which runs the No Kid Hungry campaign. “If we make it a priority, childhood hunger is a solvable problem,” he said. “We have enough food in this country. But we need to find better ways to connect kids to federal child nutrition programs. We need political will, innovation and investment.”

Nowhere is that investment more effective than the Governor’s office, which is why we immediately went to work building the No Kid Hungry Virginia campaign when my husband took office in 2014. We built public-private partnerships across the state with one goal in mind: For a stronger Virginia tomorrow, let’s feed and nourish each child today.

School breakfast was our first focus. Traditionally, breakfast is served before students are in the building, making it extremely difficult for most kids to take part in the meal. And, when it’s a long time until lunch and schoolwork requires a lot of focus and self-discipline, missing that first meal of the day can be devastating to learning.

We know there are more efficient and effective ways to reach kids with school breakfast. For example, serving breakfast after the school day has started dramatically increases the number of students who participate. We worked with administrators, nutrition directors and teachers on shifting the time breakfast is served and today, nearly 1,000 of Virginia schools have launched breakfast after the bell programs. As a result, nearly 60,000 more children are getting a free or reduced-price breakfast every day.

This had an immediate impact. For every child, every single meal matters. But especially for those children who live with food insecurity, hunger exacerbates the other stressors they face growing up in a family that struggles economically and makes it harder to break the cycle of poverty.

Our work in Virginia also resulted in two million more nutritious summer and afterschool meals being served in 2017 as compared to 2014. For kids, this nutrition helps mitigate problems like cognitive decline during the summer months, helping students return to school ready to learn.

This momentum has been incredible, but there is still more work to do. Happily, Virginia is not alone in seeing great progress in connecting children to the programs that feed them. Through my work with the National Governor’s Association, I was able to learn about the great successes that follow from strong bipartisan leadership in states from Nevada to Rhode Island, from Arkansas to Montana.

In working with dedicated leaders from across the nation, I see three primary lessons for those seeking the governor’s office this fall:

Make Childhood Hunger a Political Priority: To tackle childhood hunger, we first needed to make it a policy priority. We built strong, bipartisan support in the Virginia legislature and included nearly $5 million in the governor’s budget over five years to incentivize expanding school breakfast programs.

Build Smart, Effective Partnerships: To end childhood hunger, we needed to strengthen our networks across the food community. We worked with No Kid Hungry to embed dedicated staffers in our state agencies administering the federal nutrition programs, as well as in regions throughout the state to coordinate strategy, build local partnerships and provide customized technical support to eliminate barriers that blocked kids from accessing programs.

Focus on Making Programs More Effective: Nutrition programs need to be modernized with innovation and investment to reach all the kids they serve. In 2017, Virginia hosted a two-day learning lab with governors and staff to learn from top researchers and program specialists on best practices around program improvement and reducing childhood hunger.

It won’t be easy. It will take time. But when governors make the choice to close the gap between children who have enough to eat and those who don’t, we can end childhood hunger and improve educational and health outcomes for our next generation. The resources are available – the only thing missing is the political will to implement these programs to reach all kids who need them.

Ending childhood hunger is an issue we can all get behind.

Dorothy McAuliffe is the National Policy Adviser for Share Our Strength and former First Lady of Virginia.




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