Fill stomachs to feed minds

In the miasma of McCleary-decision mandates for K-12 funding, basic questions get obscured. Questions such as, “how do you teach a hungry child?”

A quarter of Washington children are at risk of hunger, according to Washington Appleseed, a social and economic policy organization. The ripple effect is tangible: Hungry kids are often disruptive and have a difficult time learning. A seasoned teacher and the best curriculum can’t assuage a child’s hunger pangs.

“It really shouldn’t be a big issue,” said Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish. “Kids have to eat well in order to learn well. It just doesn’t work if they’re hungry.”

The policy solution — provide breakfast for low-income students — largely has worked.

“School breakfast is associated with a host of positive outcomes, such as improved health and attendance, reduced behavioral problems, and increased academic achievement,” the Washington Appleseed report notes. “Unfortunately, a majority of Washington students who qualify for free or reduced-price breakfasts do not currently receive one at school, with many students eating no breakfast at all.”

Good ideas have unintended consequences. The social stigma of eating in the school cafeteria before the bell rings reduces participation. (Even as the number of children who qualify for free or reduced-cost meals has risen 153 percent in Washington since 2000.) No child wants to get pigeonholed as poor or in need. It’s also more fun to socialize and play outside with friends.

A successful, best-practices solution incorporates breakfast as part of the school day, an option available to every child. This “Breakfast After the Bell” template is the essence of HB 2536, which passed the state House of Representatives, 67-31. It now moves to the Senate.

The bill is a top priority for local education and social service advocates.

“Working with lawmakers to ensure our children succeed in school is a key strategy for us,” said Dennis G. Smith of Stanwood, president and CEO of United Way of Snohomish County. “It’s one of the most important things we do.”

The legislation is an easy call, the education equivalent of the broken-window theory. Failing schools have a high-percentage of hungry students. Identify a novel way to ameliorate the problem — a socially realistic way to alleviate student hunger — and performance will follow.

According to Appleseed, only 16.5 percent of Washington’s high-need schools meet national standards for breakfast participation. That must change. Implementing “Breakfast After the Bell” at Washington’s high-need schools addresses a basic problem in a comprehensive, cost-effective way. Go with what works.