In Milwaukee – America’s ninth-poorest city for children – about one in three kids are faced with the harsh realities of poverty at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Times have been tough for a while. As manufacturing jobs have left Milwaukee over the years, so too have the paychecks parents need to feed their kids. Unfortunately, in our country’s current economic decline, Milwaukee’s pain is shared by cities and towns all over America, where jobs are disappearing and families are struggling.

Despite the challenges facing Milwaukee and the nation, our children need to be eating three healthy meals each day. Studies have shown that when children go hungry, they are more likely to suffer from behavioral problems, poor attendance at school and difficulty learning.

That’s why I introduced two pieces of legislation this week to help fill the gap between what parents living in poverty can provide for their kids, and what we know kids actually need.

Along with Wisconsin Senators Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold, I introduced the Student Breakfast and Education Improvement Act of 2009. This bill would provide grants for universal school breakfast programs in schools across the country, awarded on a competitive basis. Schools with 65 percent of students who are eligible for free and reduced price lunch could apply for these grants.

In Milwaukee, more than three quarters of public school students quality for free or reduced price lunch. Milwaukee Public Schools, in partnership with the Milwaukee Hunger Task Force, has implemented a pilot program that provides free breakfast to all students in more than 60 participating schools, and we have had great success. That is why I feel so strongly about expanding free breakfasts nationwide.

I also introduced the AFTERSchool Meals Act of 2009 this week, which would give all schools the authorization to provide suppers through either the school meals program that allows them to serve lunches, or through the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). Every day, 3.1 million children receive nutritious meals and snacks through CACFP, but only 10 states are authorized to serve suppers to children 18 and under through CACFP’s “At-Risk” After School Care Program.

Needy children should not have to go hungry because economic hardships prevent their parents from buying healthy foods for them to eat. We need America’s children to learn reading, writing, math and science – and we can’t have them distracted all day long because they are not getting enough to eat. Providing nutritious meals for kids who would otherwise go without is one of the most important actions we can take to improve education in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and in towns all across America where times are tough. Just like textbooks, pencils and notebooks, healthy meals are essential tools to help ensure students’ success in the classroom.