Breakfast milestone

President Obama’s upcoming State of the Union speech is expected to be long on inspiring rhetoric about the need to address inequality but short on bold legislative proposals given diminished expectations of Congressional cooperation.

2013 was panned as one of the most unproductive years in Congressional history. It would be hard to argue to the contrary. But this week witnessed a milestone in government-driven social change that reminds what government can do to improve lives in the short term as well as the long run. 

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A new report by the Food Research and Action Center, “School Breakfast Scorecard,” shows that after a nearly 50-year struggle to improve participation in the school breakfast program, a majority of eligible children, nearly 52 percent, are now participating. This contrasts with the minority characterized by low participation rates until just last year (which was a shade above half at 50.4 percent). 

Some states such as New Mexico and West Virginia, as well as Washington D.C., achieved rates near or at 70 percent, a record high since 1966 when school breakfast was added to the school lunch program that our military advocated for after World War II. 

In a town where reports rain down like confetti and are just as swiftly swept aside, it would be easy to overlook this as a seemingly small development.  But actually it’s a remarkable achievement and due principally to a rare combination of those things we’ve sadly all but given up on in American political life today:

*Sustained bipartisan support from Democrats and Republicans, not only in Washington but among governors responsible for implementation at the state level.
 
*The political courage to stand up for those most vulnerable and voiceless.
 
*Innovation and entrepreneurship in program design and reform by moving breakfast from the cafeteria before school, to the classroom or “after the bell.”
 
*Agility and flexibility from a bureaucracy as large as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (which oversees reimbursement for school meals) in working with governors and state agencies to eliminate barriers to achieving important objectives.
 
*Coordinated collaboration among numerous nonprofit organizations such as FRAC, Feeding America, The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, Share Our Strength, and numerous statewide advocacy groups.

Another new report, No Kid Hungry “Breakfast Changes Lives,”  highlights tactics that led to some of these successes in specific states, including legislation and policies designed to support increased breakfast participation. For example, in Arkansas, 71 schools changed the way they were serving breakfast and Gov. Beebe signed legislation that will support schools serving breakfast after the bell, as part of the school day.  Breakfast participation in that state is now close to 58 percent and climbing.  

While there is still a long way to go to ensure that no child is hungry in America, far reaching benefits have already been documented.  The recent report by the strategic consulting firm Deloitte showed powerful correlations between school breakfast and higher math scores, better attendance, and projected improvements in graduation rates.  For those committed to economic growth and the education reform efforts needed to ensure our national economic competitiveness, school nutrition is a vital underpinning.

Even in Washington a stopped clock is right twice a day, and there are times, seized upon too infrequently in our cynical political culture, worth acknowledging the great good that government can do to make life better not for just a segment of the population but for all of us.  The ongoing success of school nutrition efforts gives President Obama a perfect example to share with Congress and the country.

Shore is the founder and CEO of Share Our Strength, the national nonprofit focused on ending childhood hunger through its No Kid Hungry campaign. Learn more at www.NoKidHungry.org