By Justin Mattingly, Richmond Times Dispatch
One in six Virginia children live in families that struggle with hunger.
Across the state, schools are ramping up efforts to ensure students are getting the meals they wouldn’t have otherwise — especially breakfast. Through the end of the year, Virginia schools are competing for prizes and recognition through increased school breakfast participation.
The second annual Virginia Breakfast Challenge encourages state schools to get more students to eat breakfast through a program — “Breakfast After the Bell” — that aims to break the stigma of eating school breakfast.
In the first Virginia Breakfast Challenge last year, 1,325 schools participated and about 25,000 more students had school breakfast compared with when the challenge started.
During the 2016-17 school year, Virginia schools served about 10 million more breakfasts than four years prior.
The numbers are improving, but there’s still room for improvement, said Claire Wilker Mansfield, Virginia state director for No Kid Hungry, a campaign of national nonprofit Share Our Strength.
“There’s still lots of work to do,” Mansfield said. “Nobody wants kids to be hungry.”
Only half of Virginia students who eat school lunch start the school day with school breakfast, according to No Kid Hungry, meaning about 260,000 students don’t have school breakfast.
The challenge is trying to change that.
“Teachers know their kids are hungry. They know they need to eat,” Mansfield said. “They do well when they get the meals they need.”
Breakfast After the Bell incorporates breakfast into the classroom, whether it be during a nutrition break in the morning, a grab-and-go style as they walk to class, or having breakfast delivered to each classroom.
Increased access helps students in the classroom, first lady Dorothy McAuliffe said in a news release kicking off this year’s Virginia Breakfast Challenge.
“More than ever, it’s important to bridge Virginia’s nutritional divide,” she said. “We know expanding school breakfast programs helps end childhood hunger and strengthens a student’s performance.”
The lack of quality meals is far-reaching, Mansfield said.
“It’s an urban problem. It’s a rural problem,” she said. “It encompasses the entire commonwealth.”
Across the country, school breakfast is served to 14.6 million students each day, according to the School Nutrition Association. The cost ranges from $1.39 for elementary school students to $1.51 for high school students, but some school divisions across the U.S. have enacted universal free meals policies so all students are guaranteed school meals.
About 4 in 5 school breakfasts served in the U.S. are free, according to the School Nutrition Association.
“Kids need good quality food in order to learn effectively,” said Sonya Islam, a dietitian at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University.
In Virginia, the 3-month-long breakfast challenge aims to make sure they’re able to do just that.
The challenge runs through Dec. 31. Twelve school winners and four school division winners will be named in the spring.
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