Fighting Child Hunger Starts With Breakfast

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March 4, 2019 By: Tina Mortimer

It’s National School Breakfast Week, a weeklong celebration of the National School Breakfast Program and the perfect time to recognize one of the many breakfast heroes who are fighting child hunger and pushing to make breakfast a regular part of the school day.

Beatriz Alcazar works at Hiawatha Collegiate High School in Minneapolis. Alcazar said she knows that there are many students experiencing hunger at her school. She knows this for two reasons: 1) Approximately 88 percent of students at the high school qualify for free or reduced-cost meals, and 2) As a social worker at the school, she hears the heart-wrenching stories firsthand from students.

“I once spoke to a student who was brought into my office because she was acting out in the classroom,” said Alcazar. “After talking for a while, she shared with me that she was worried because her mother was stealing food from her job to bring home to her and her siblings. She was scared her mom was going to get fired and they wouldn’t have food anymore.”

Since Alcazar began working at the school three years ago, she has helped implement monthly food distributions, an on-site food shelf, expanded free and reduced-cost meal programs, including Second Chance Breakfast, a Breakfast After the Bell program, and universal SNAP (formerly food stamps) referrals.

“We recently started a Second Chance Breakfast program for students, and it has been really well received,” she said. “We used to have just 50 kids eating breakfast. Now we have anywhere from 300 to 350 eating breakfast daily.”

Alcazar said the breakfast program has had a significant impact on students’ energy and demeanor.

“There’s been a huge shift,” she said. “We noticed less behavior-related incidents right away. Students don’t feel hangry when they get a chance to eat something nutritious. I wish there were more of widespread understanding about how hunger impacts learning, behavior and health. If a child’s basic needs aren’t met, it’s hard to expect them to stay focused in class.”

Alcazar was recently recognized for her efforts to bring meals to hungry students with a Breakfast Hero Contest nomination by Second Harvest Heartland. The nationwide competition, led by the national anti-hunger campaign No Kid Hungry, launches during National School Breakfast Week, March 4-8, to celebrate the champions who make school breakfast possible for kids.

“In some ways, the nomination is bittersweet,” she admits. “Sweet because it’s an honor, but bitter because we still have so much work to do. I hope our school meal program will serve as a model for other schools. School meals are so important for students experiencing food insecurity. For some kids, school meals are all the healthy food they have access to.”

While lunch and after-school free and reduced-cost meal programs are widely utilized throughout the state by many schools, breakfast programs are not as prevalent. Alcazar wants to change that.

“My hope is that we create meal programs at Hiawatha Collegiate High that reduce food insecurity stigma and serve as a model for other schools,” she said.

That’s our hope as well.

What started as a program to make breakfast a regular part of the school day for students, Breakfast After the Bell has grown into a major child hunger initiative—led by Second Harvest Heartland and several local community partners—designed to ensure healthy child development through reliable access to nutritious food. The initiative aims to level the playing field for all Minnesota’s children, building a healthy, prosperous future for our state.

Currently, 290,000 Minnesota students participate in the free and reduced-price meal program, but only 160,000 are participating in the breakfast program. Making breakfast part of the regular school day, just like lunch, gives kids the fuel they need to learn and grow.

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