Above: Nathan Garcia, 28th Class Emerson Fellow.
Sometimes a problem can feel so large that it’s hard to know how to start solving it. We learn that millions of people across the United States are food insecure, that poverty and racism are embedded and reinforced through our different systems, but it’s unclear what we can do to change that. Over the years I’ve worked with different groups providing for the immediate physiological needs of others: food, shelter, security. Many organizations exist to address symptoms of poverty, and while that work is both critical and kind, it can sometimes be difficult to sustain.
Around the time that the COVID-19 pandemic started I had begun thinking about what it would look like to shift into work that took things a step further. Some of the most impactful work I had seen accomplished was either a direct result of legislation or made possible through institutional funding. Good policy could anticipate needs and prevent them; charities might only be necessary when good policy wasn’t in place.
Through the Emerson Fellowship at the Congressional Hunger Center I was given an opportunity to learn how to be a part of creating lasting change. To go beyond the symptoms of hunger and poverty to work on crafting solutions to its causes. My first placement was with Project Bread, a group that works with legislators to craft policy solutions to strengthen critical nutrition programs while engaging partners to address the underlying factors contributing to hunger in Massachusetts. There I worked alongside the Child Nutrition and Outreach Program (CNOP) team in Boston to get a better understanding of how to strengthen breakfast programs at schools across the state, and in what ways could technical assistance support implementation of Breakfast After The Bell programs.
Growing up I wasn’t always aware of the challenges my family faced with food insecurity. Because our situation mirrored so many other families in our community, I didn’t fully comprehend how fortunate I was that I could exchange my name for a free breakfast and lunch at school through our state meal program. While I didn’t understand how eligibility worked at my school, I understood how important those meals were to me, and I knew how it felt on the days I didn’t get them. Being hungry is stressful. Food insecure students are more likely to have decreased motivation in the classroom and have higher levels of anxiety and irritability1.
While both school meal programs have been shown to have a positive impact for students, the breakfast program often has the greatest room for improvement in terms of participation. Kids who eat a healthy breakfast are more likely to retain what they learn in class. They are more likely to behave better, test better, and experience better overall health outcomes. Despite the benefits, there are still many barriers keeping students from participating in breakfast programs at school: misconceptions about eligibility, negative stigmas, late buses, social pressures, and the inability to pay are some of the many factors. Over 22 million kids in the U.S. get a free or reduced-price school lunch on an average school day, yet only 12 million of those kids get free or reduced-price school breakfast2. Of the more than 400,000 students in Massachusetts who qualify for free and reduced-price meals, only around 40% currently receive breakfast at school3.
To increase participation rates for school breakfast, Massachusetts is implementing a mandate in the 2022-2023 school year where all schools with a 60% or higher number of students that qualify for free or reduced-price meals must adopt a Breakfast After The Bell service model. Breakfast After The Bell ensures that breakfast is made available to all students after the instructional day has begun. Through interviews with school nutrition directors across the state, we identified which schools were on track with the mandate, and which schools needed additional support. Different districts have unique challenges that can make implementing new policies difficult. That’s why it’s important that policy makers are informed by the communities they’re working with. Through years of relationship building, the CNOP team at Project Bread has been able to help bridge the gap between state and schools. The staff I came to know at Project Bread view policy through stakeholder lenses and facilitate learning opportunities between them. To conclude my placement with Project Bread I created a report assessing the implementation of the mandate within the state of Massachusetts, so that policy makers who wish to create a similar mandate outside of Massachusetts may understand the program’s challenges and keys to success.
I began my field placement thinking that policy was the most important aspect of enacting meaningful and institutional change, but I’ve since learned that solutions can be a little more complex than that. Policy can create a foundation for equity, but real change also needs community connection. Even now, as I’m nearing the end of my second placement at the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), I’m learning that good policy is the result of both thoughtful research and community input. All of which require the ability to build trust and meaningful relationships.
- Research Brief – The Connections Between Food Insecurity, the Federal Nutrition Programs, and Student Behavior. (n.d.). Food Research & Action Center. Retrieved February 7, 2022, from frac.org/research/resource-library/research-brief-connections-food-insecurity-federal-nutrition-programs-student-behavior
- Implement Breakfast After the Bell | Center for Best Practices. (n.d.). No Kid Hungry Center for Best Practices. Retrieved February 7, 2022, from bestpractices.nokidhungry.org/programs/school-breakfast/implement-breakfast-after-the-bell
- School Breakfast Overview. (n.d.). Child Nutrition Outreach Program. Retrieved February 7, 2022, from meals4kids.org/breakfast