As Gov. Ted Strickland was detailing the economic challenges confronting Ohio during his State of the State address Wednesday, a comment made by an official of Children’s Hunger Alliance served as counterpoint: A large sum of United States Department of Agriculture money is being left on the table.
There’s no argument that Ohio is in the midst of one of the most trying times in recent history, and the plan detailed by the governor to balance the budget will require sacrifice by all Ohioans. But the question that must be asked is this: Why is it that one in six children are either hungry or at risk of going hungry?
Or more to the point, why is it that 63 percent of the 500,000 low-income students in Ohio do not participate in the school breakfast program; 17 percent do not take part in the National School Lunch Program; and, 90 percent of low-income students do not participate in the Summer Food Service Program?
The money to pay for breakfast, lunch, after school and summer feeding programs is available from the federal government, but it is up to the state government and local school districts to take the initiative.
Indeed, in talking to officials of the Children’s Hunger Alliance, a non-profit organization whose goal is to ensure that every Ohio child has three nutritional meals a day, it becomes clear that while parents or caretakers may be unaware of the programs available, there does not seem to be a sense of urgency on the part of decision-makers in Columbus or locally.
Take the Youngstown City School District, for example. While every child at the elementary level is eligible for free breakfast, only 40 percent participate. Given the high poverty rate in the city and the fact that a large number of inner city children come from single-family homes, why would breakfast, which has been shown to be essential in the learning process, not be a priority?
By contrast, in Lima, the participation rate is 76 percent.
What accounts for the difference? Simple: In Lima, the school district decided to make breakfast a part of the first period, rather than setting aside time before the start of school. Given the high tardiness rate in urban school districts, it makes more sense to have students in the classroom eating breakfast at their desks while the teacher takes roll and gets ready for the day.
The data provided by the Children’s Hunger Alliance shows that in the past five years there has been tremendous growth in the breakfast and summer meal programs in Ohio. The support of past and present governors and legislators has proved to be invaluable in expanding the participation of Ohio’s young people, especially those coming from households below the poverty level.
But it is also clear that much more needs to be done.
Indeed, with Gov. Strickland’s emphasis on education, especially in the early years when the learning is most critical, ensuring that hunger is not an impediment must be a priority.