When Patrice Chamberlain met with local police chiefs to explain why they should care about summer meals, she steadied herself for a “big sell.” To her surprise, their immediate response was, “How can we help?” It’s one of the many unlikely partnerships that Chamberlain initiated to help more kids get access to nutritious food in California.

“It starts with having those basic needs met. Police appreciate the opportunity to interact positively in communities. To connect families to resources. To build trust in communities where those relationships have historically been bad,” she explains. “They deal in poverty.” Poverty has consequences for physical and mental health, educational attainment, and behavior, including interactions with police.

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State Assembly Member Tim Grayson gives a high five to a child at the Mt. Diablo USDA summer event.

About 60% of California's kids qualify for free and reduced price lunch during the school year—more than 3.5 million kids. Most poor kids are in working families, with higher concentrations of poverty among Latino, African American, and indigenous students. It’s the most populous state, with high poverty in the agricultural-rich Central Valley and between Los Angeles and San Diego counties.

Chamberlain directs the California Summer Meal Coalition, a program of the Institute for Local Government. It's a statewide group of agencies brought together to understand why meal programs are underutilized. Summer meal programs are intended to fill the nutrition gap when school is out. But the Coalition finds that accessing school breakfast, lunch, and summer meals are all interconnected.

For advocates, the reasons why kids don’t get summer meals are not surprising. They include a lack of familiarity with the summer meals program, transportation issues in rural areas, hurdles for nutrition directors, safety concerns, language or communication barriers, and program cuts. But the Coalition wanted to go deeper, to understand the connected conditions for poor families in a more holistic context so they could begin to solve them. Funding support from Hunger Is focuses on developing relationships between school districts and government leaders to explore ways to increase meal participation.

Teachers and school staff are intimately aware that kids have “real stuff going on” at home. What happens outside of school hours impacts children’s access to healthy food—during the school year or summer. It could be a late or no-show bus. Or there’s an absent parent or a parent with a disability who relies on other people or an accessible bus to accompany a child to school. “They’re told their fate is set. They’re not getting that food, they are hungry kids,” Chamberlain says. “The research is all there. It affects academic success.” Summer learning loss, or the summer setback, affects both learning and wellness for low-income kids.

The Great Recession and huge cuts to summer learning programs brought a steep decline in sites willing to host the summer meals program. “City leaders maybe thought school districts had it covered. There wasn’t intentional communication between different leaders,” she continues. And that made kids more vulnerable.

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Venus Johnson, Public Safety Director for the City of Oakland, reading to kids at San Pablo Library.

Many DA offices, meanwhile, have juvenile divisions that prosecute juvenile crimes, including truancy. The California State Attorney General’s office released its first report on truancy and chronic absenteeism in 2013. Low-income kids and kids of color were disproportionately affected. Truancy led to school setbacks, loss of earnings, and other lifelong impacts. Poverty is a risk factor in delinquency. Socioeconomic status is a factor in criminal prosecution, too. The consequences are higher for poor youth than affluent ones.

Chamberlain, who holds a Master’s in Public Health, saw parallels with truancy and students who were going hungry. She invited the Attorney General leadership team to be guest readers during a summer lunch service. School supplies were distributed. Law enforcement spoke about the importance of getting to school on time each day to start the day off right and for academic success. “We had perfectly aligned goals,” Chamberlain recalls. “If kids are absent or truant, they can’t access school breakfast. If there’s an issue outside of school, if they can’t get to school, they can’t access it.” And there are a million different obstacles in their path.

Law enforcement officers witness the impacts of hunger on kids and teens. It could present in survival strategies like petty thefts, acting out behavior, or selling drugs. Chamberlain recounted a police officer responding to a domestic dispute because one child ate “more than his share.” Some teens trade sex for food and efforts to combat human trafficking are increasing. Cops who see the consequences of poverty and make that connection are willing to partner on preventative work.

“I do a lot of translation,” Chamberlain says. “I do a lot of listening. I try to find what it is that we have in common [with potential stakeholders], creating a shared language that takes into account what they care about.” She’s a native Californian who peppers her speech with words like “awesome” and “incredible.” Her enthusiasm for summer meal programs is infectious. She credits her kids, ages 9 and 12, with deepening her understanding of the importance of healthy food for kids.

The Coalition tried tweaks to increase awareness and leverage new partnerships to help more kids get nutritious food in the summer. Partners tried summer kickoff events or back to school events to bring families together, have fun, and address needs. At Sun Terrace Elementary School, a community barbecue connected families to services and resources, the event featured speakers, live entertainment, library books, and taste tests of local stone fruits.

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Fire department at the Mt. Diablo USD summer event.

Elected officials have few opportunities to engage working families or to meet kids. Summer meal events provide meaningful connections and a low key way to connect with whole families. The Mayor of San Pablo handed out school supplies at one event. He shook hands or patted each student on the back and wished them a great school year. Chamberlain explains: “These kids don’t interact with elected officials. When someone in a powerful position encourages you to do your best, says you matter, that’s incredibly powerful.”

Creativity and simple changes can have an impact. By adjusting the serving time of summer breakfast—making it more of a brunch—schools saw a big increase in participation, including among teens. It was an unintended outcome, but teenagers wake up later in the day and that was their breakfast time. Another school shifted a produce drop (provided through a relationship with a local food bank) to the morning to increase summer breakfast participation.

“Hunger can sometimes be a charged thing,” Chamberlain says. She believes bringing together different government agencies, including school districts, works effectively and efficiently to create healthy communities. Meal programs—like breakfast and summer meals—help offset costs so that working families can set themselves up for stability. Chamberlain says regardless of political leanings, there’s generally a “consensus to take care of our kids.”

Hunger Is, a joint charitable program of the Albertsons Companies Foundation and the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF), builds awareness and raises funds to end childhood hunger. The Institute for Local Government received a grant to fund efforts in California. This is the first in a WhyHunger series of profiles of grant recipients and their impact.

WhyHunger and Hunger Is are proud to support breakfast programs around the U.S.

Children who miss meals regularly, especially breakfast, are more likely to be held back a grade, and receive special education services and mental health counseling than children who do not struggle with food insecurity. Children who eat a healthy breakfast have increased brain development, ability to focus, better attendance and overall academic capacity, according to the Illinois School Breakfast Financial Sustainability Report written by the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

I spoke with Suzanne Lee who works in the Policy and Advocacy Department of the Greater Chicago Food Depository Breakfast Program to learn about how policy, breakfast and social good are helping nourish kids in Chicago. Suzanne explained that a new state law has been passed in Illinois that mandates free After the Bell breakfast for any school that has a seventy percent or more poverty rate. This law will be implemented this coming year to help 78,000 children in Chicago access healthy, free meals to start their day!

To prepare the schools and the families for this major change, the Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD) has leveraged a grant from the Hunger Is initiative to host five events throughout Chicago to make sure the whole school system is prepared and the children and families know how this new After the Bell breakfast program will work. They also printed and distributed educational material that further explains the new system.

The GCFD utilizes a dual strategy for promoting healthy breakfast for children; offering community support for legislation on a state and local level, like After the Bell breakfast, that will benefit children and families in need alongside educational events, as well as creating literature and campaigns to explain the benefits of the legislation and encourage participation. All too often the very people who can benefit the most from a piece of legislation like this have not heard enough about it to embrace it enthusiastically and support it.

In the not too distant past food banks and emergency food providers saw their role simply as giving food to hungry people. Fortunately, that has changed and GCFD is a good example of a more holistic approach to fighting hunger and poverty. The support from Hunger Is has helped GCFD and organizations across the country to strengthen this trend and multiply the impact of their strategies to reach many more hungry people, and especially help children access nutritious meals.

WhyHunger and Hunger Is are proud to support breakfast programs around the U.S.

The San Diego Food Bank received a grant from Hunger Is to enhance their School Breakfast Initiative. I talked to Jim Floros their Executive Director to learn more about the food bank itself and how their School Breakfast Initiative works.

Jim is a 30-year veteran in non-profit work and has a refreshingly holistic approach to food banking. He refers to the San Diego Food Bank as a “nutrition bank” that is working to go beyond merely feeding people but providing nutritious food to all their clients, especially the children. They serve 465,000 of the poorest people including 180,000 children in San Diego and the surrounding area. They believe in the adage that if you feed a child well they will learn and grow up to earn and stay out of poverty. They understand that good food is only one of several elements necessary for a child to learn and grow; yet they are determined to provide the best food possible for the most children facing poverty and hunger.

The Food Bank has a number of programs to acquire fresh fruits and vegetables and they focus on providing healthy food for all and especially the children. Jim is also reaching out to other food banks around the country to share their model and innovative approaches to breakfast and many other programs providing good food.

With support from Hunger Is, the San Diego Food Bank was able to grow their breakfast program in several ways, increasing number of children who receive breakfast and the quality of the food. The following offers a good summary of their efforts.

Increasing Healthy Breakfast in San Diego

A healthy, nutritious breakfast makes all the difference for young children. The first meal of the day sets them up for the learning and play that follows.

The San Diego Food Bank, with support from Hunger Is, has developed a 4-Point Breakfast Initiative to further increase participation in this first meal by thousands of very low-income children in San Diego County who are all too often also chronically hungry.

Part 1

Last fall, the Food Bank added 100 students from low-income families to the Food 4 Kids Backpack Program, increasing the number of children on the program who are provided with breakfast foods over the weekend.

At a cost of just $200 per child, Food 4 Kids Backpack distributes backpacks full of nutritious, child-friendly food to chronically hungry elementary school children who are receiving free meals at school during the week, but show signs of chronic hunger on Monday morning. Some of these children were returning to school on Monday not having eaten since Friday’s lunch!

The Food 4 Kids Backpack Program targets chronically hungry children in San Diego County by working in select public schools where more than 85% of the children receive government-sponsored free or reduced-price meals during the school week, but have no such provisions over weekends.

All children who receive free/reduced-price lunches through government programs are eligible to receive Food Bank backpacks.

In partnership with school principals, counselors, teachers, parents, and dedicated volunteer leaders, the Food Bank initiated our Food 4 Kids Backpack Program in 2006 by targeting 75 needy children in 2 of our poorest institutions. Over its 10-year history, the program has seen tremendous growth thanks to generous donors – foundation, corporate and individual. We are currently serving 1,730 children every week.

Chronically hungry children are identified by teachers and school staff using guidelines and warning signs for program eligibility. These children are provided new backpacks each school year. Every Friday, the backpacks are filled with food that is nutritious, nonperishable, and easily-consumed.

Breakfast items constitute a significant portion of the food provided. This year's menu of breakfast-specific food includes Toasty O's, Oat Blenders with Honey, Whole Grain Cereal Bars Strawberry, Fruit Burst Squeezers, reduced fat milk and oatmeal.

As an added benefit, the Food Bank has adopted a mandate to fight childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes. To that end, the Food Bank makes available ample supplies of fresh produce once a month at participating Backpack Program schools. Additionally, Food Bank staff offers their services at all backpack schools to assist families in the complex process of applying for and receiving CalFresh benefits (formerly known as Food Stamps).

Part 2

The second feature of the Food Bank’s effort to increase the consumption of breakfast by our young clients includes the distribution of 18,000 Family Units of whole grain buttermilk pancake mix through the Food 4 Kids Backpack Program. This longtime breakfast staple will be a welcome addition to the once-a-month Family Packs students take home in addition to their regular weekly backpacks of food. The handy packet makes for easy placement in the current F4KBP backpacks. Additionally, the Food Bank plans to purchase thousands of pounds of fresh fruits to be distributed through our Summer Lunch Program. Students participating in this program typically come to a Summer Lunch Program distribution without having eaten a healthy, nutritious breakfast. The majority of them participate in the free and reduced-price meal programs at school, but these meal programs are unavailable to these students in the summer months. Students will receive a variety of easy-to-consume fruits and nutrition education information on the importance of a well-balanced diet.

Food 4 Kids Backpack Program 527x323Part 3

Building on the successful nutrition education materials identified and distributed by the Food Bank to Food 4 Kids Backpack Program students over the last year, the Food Bank plans to take the next step in our nutrition education outreach programming. Through this program, we plan to offer cooking demo classes for kids either at backpack schools or in affiliated afterschool programs. Held three times throughout the grant year, these nutrition education interactive events will feature lessons incorporating a healthy, easy breakfast tasting and a nutrition game that incorporates physical activity. The cooking demo events will be coordinated and delivered by the Food Bank’s Nutrition and Wellness Educator, who is a Registered Dietitian, and her staff. The events will be open to all students and family members.

The Food Bank will also continue to include colorful and engaging nutrition education materials in the backpacks of Food 4 Kids Backpack Program students. These materials will highlight important features of a healthy breakfast and well-balanced diet and practical tips for adults including breakfast recipes.

Part 4

The Food Bank has recently rolled out a successful Food Rescue Program across the County of San Diego.

The program has seen nearly 600,000 pounds of food secured from area grocers who donate perishable food a significant proportion of which makes its way to breakfast tables of hundreds of thousands of poor and chronically hungry children through our vast network of food distribution programs.

The Food Bank works with a variety of local charitable agencies to receive the contents of the Food Rescue Program for quick and efficient distribution to San Diegans in need.

With 370,000 low-income people in San Diego County every month turning to the Food Bank for hunger relief, the Food Rescue Program plays a significant role in meeting this need.

WhyHunger and Hunger Is are proud to support breakfast programs in NJ.

The New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition is co-chair of the Food for Thought Campaign which has successfully increased the number of low income students eating breakfast by 75 percent. When the campaign began five years ago, New Jersey was 46th in the country for students receiving a free school breakfast. Adele LaTourette, the Coalition’s Director worked with Campaign co-chair, Advocates for Children of NJ, to form a broad based grassroots coalition that included parents, educators, the New Jersey Department of Agriculture and several other local and statewide hunger/poverty organizations. National campaign partners are the Food Research and Action Center, and the American Dairy Association and Council.

The campaign also works with the New Jersey Department of Education to promote “After the Bell” breakfasts. Most schools were offering breakfast before school starts and the response was sparse because of the time. The coalition promoted Breakfast in the Classroom and “Grab and Go” which the Department of Education deemed as instructional time, the best of both worlds- eat and learn.

Because of the efforts of this broad based coalition, more than 100,000 additional children now have free breakfast in the classroom and New Jersey is ranked 23rd in the nation, a far cry from 46th but still not good enough. The Food for Thought Campaign is continuing its work and is targeting school districts with the lowest participation rates. The Campaign is also expanding its efforts, working to ensure that every child in New Jersey has access to a healthy meal, three times a day, 365 days a year. These efforts focus on targeted communities in New Jersey and expanding community access to both the summer food service program and the after school supper program.

This is an excellent example of a grassroots movement that also involves government and businesses such as the Dairy Council and never gives up.

What has the USDA’s School Breakfast Program (SBP) done for American children in its 50 years of existence? Find out in this new report by Janet Poppendieck, activist, author, professor emerita at Hunter College and WhyHunger Board Member as she examines the history, challenges, policy gains and role of advocacy in shaping the program on its 50th anniversary.

What we know for sure is that this program has provided nutritious food to millions of kids in the US. Since SBP was established, the Average Daily Participation has grown from about 80,000 in the first year of operation to 14,900,000 last year. But how did we get here and how do we keep this critical program in place as an effective tool in the fight against hunger and poverty?

“In my view, the fifty-year effort to make school breakfast more available, accessible, acceptable and nutritious is an outstanding example of effective advocacy and possibly the best example of productive cooperation between national anti-hunger organizations and state and local groups.” – Janet Poppendieck

Dig in to the report here and share! 

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