“If you ask any teacher, principle or school nutritionist,” says Rep. Zack Hudgins, “they all say hungry kids don’t learn.”
That is why Hudgins, a Democrat from Tukwila, is advocating for a bill to integrate breakfast into the school day in high-need schools. Studies across the nation have shown this approach to breakfast makes sure more students start the day on a full stomach, and better ready to learn.
Recent increases in childhood hunger have many advocates worried about nutrition in Washington schools. A 2013 report by Washington Appleseed found that one-fifth of children in Washington do not eat properly.
According to Victor Loo, the director of recovery services at the Asian Counseling and Referral Services in Seattle, many immigrant families are particularly at risk of poor nutrition. “Low income or no-income Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) families face challenges in accessing food/healthy options,” Loo said in an email. Loo also notes that low-income immigrant families would face transportation issues, and may not be able to take children to school early to eat breakfast.
Many of these families rely on free school meals to make sure their children eat, and the number of students receiving free meals has increased dramatically during the past 15 years. While most take advantage of lunch at school, only 43 percent of those students eat breakfast at school.
Nationally, this statistic makes Washington one of the least effective states at making sure low-income students eat the most important meal of the day. “The fact that we are 41st out of 50 states in the country is pretty appalling,” says Linda Stone, food policy director for the Children’s Alliance, a Seattle advocacy group focused on improving the well-being of children in Washington.
Stone and other advocates have been pushing for a change in the breakfast program for the last few years, culminating in this year’s bill. According to Stone, the bill should be filed during the third week of the legislative session.
Under the bill, any school where 70 percent of students qualify for free meals must serve breakfast during the school day. This could be accomplished through a breakfast break in the morning or by providing grab-and-go food for kids on their way to or between classes. Schools and districts would be free to design a program that works best for their students.
According to Loo, AAPI families struggling to make ends meet are most likely to live in places where housing is affordable, such as the South King County area. Many schools in such areas would be affected by the bill and some, such as the Tukwila School District, already integrate breakfast.
This approach to nutrition would make the current before-school breakfast plan work more effectively and get kids ready to learn, Hudgins said. According to the Washington Appleseed report, higher participation in breakfast programs has been associated with many benefits for schools across the country. These range from less disciplinary incidents to higher attendance, and even higher scores on standardized tests.
Several Washington schools have already incorporated breakfast into the school day, including Mt. View Elementary school in Seattle.
“I definitely think it’s helpful, and the way we’ve incorporated it into the classroom has been beneficial,” says Lisa Escobar, principal of Mt. View. At her school, pre-packaged food isbrought to classrooms where students eat at their desks after school starts.
According to Escobar, teachers use the time to read and make announcements. In kindergarten classrooms, the class sits down and eats together to practice socializing and cleaning up. Under the proposed legislation, this time would still count towards instruction hours, reflecting the opportunities for teachers to use the time for education.
“Most importantly,” Escobar says, “many of our kids arrive at school without eating, and it helps their ability to learn to have breakfast here.”
According to Rich Wood, the communications specialist at the Washington Education Association, making sure kids eat is one way to ensure they are ready to learn. Funding from the state and enthusiasm from educators cannot be effective if students start the day on an empty stomach.
This bill is the second that the Breakfast After the Bell coalition has introduced. Last year, the bill passed the House on a bipartisan vote, but failed to make it out of the Senate.
“There really was very little understanding and a lot of confusion,” Stone says about the previous bill. She adds that awareness is rising about the issue, in part due to Washington’s high rates of childhood poverty and food insecurity.
Supporters in Olympia, like Hudgins, are also helping to push the issue forward.
“More people know about it, and more people are talking about it,” Hudgins says. He is hopeful that more awareness about the issue will help it pass during this legislative session. According to Stone, the governor has also voiced support for better breakfast programs.
Hudgins says one reason the issue has seen more support is that it is a non-divisive issue, and has enjoyed support across party lines. Despite a polarized political atmosphere, the quality of Washington’s education system is a high priority.