Don’t starve our children’s potential
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According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, over 15 million children, or over 21 percent of all American kids, live in poverty. Additionally, more than half of public school children live below the poverty line and over 76 percent of U.S. teachers reported that students come to class hungry each day.

The problem hits close to home, right here in my state, Louisiana. About two-thirds of students in our state live in poverty. That is the same percentage of kids who are eligible for free or reduced school lunch in the state, as well as in the City of New Orleans. Clearly, there is a dangerous and growing food security crisis threatening our children in Louisiana and across the country.

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Presently, public schools not only provide classroom instruction; they also serve desperately needed meals. Some kids may even get the majority of their weekly meals at school.  In New Orleans where the poverty rate is 39 percent, families are still struggling post Katrina as they are stuck in jobs that pay low wages and many are homeless.

 

Despite the fact that the free and reduced-priced meal program is a resource that has addressed a critical need in our country for more than 60 years, it is currently imperiled by legislation that threatens to scale back the number of children served. 

Cold-hearted and shortsighted members of Congress are threatening to slash meal programs in a naive attempt at cutting costs.

In the United States, every child has the right to an equal education. Free and reduced-priced meal programs play an essential role in making sure that children are fed. With recent changes to the nutritional standards of school lunches spearheaded by former first lady Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaMichelle Obama on 'Becoming': 'Sasha still hasn't read it' Michelle Obama seeks volunteers for local campaigns: There are 'no "off" years' Obama condemns 'hatred in all its forms' after New Zealand shooting MORE, meals provided at school are healthier than what many children living in low-income households might typically be fed.

Consistent, healthy meals don’t only address the nutritional needs of students, they fuel learning.Students who receive two meals at school, such as breakfast and lunch, may perform better academically than those who receive just one or none.

It is absolutely crucial to the health and education of our kids and our nation to maintain free and reduced-price meal programs in public schools. Instead of trying to dismantle these programs, it is imperative that we work to strengthen and expand them.

 Almost 10 million students who are eligible for free lunch don't eat breakfast at school. Six out of seven kids who receive a free or reduced-price lunch don’t get such meals in the summer. In my home state of Louisiana, of the students who received a free or reduced-priced lunch, just over half also ate breakfast at school. In my state, one-of-six kids goes to bed hungry every night. One-fifth of kids in New Orleans is at risk of going hungry. Think about how much worse things will be if school meal programs are cut.

It will be a national tragedy if Congress takes food out of the mouths of children. In New Orleans, where we have yet to recover from Hurricane Katrina, putting more children at risk of hunger will only make that recovery even more elusive. 

While politicians may shave some money off of the budget by cutting school food programs, there will be a net loss as we pay for it many times over — and far into the future — as hungry children fail to thrive physically and intellectually.

We cannot afford to starve our future. If we want our country to be great, at minimum, we must feed and educate our children.

Gina Womack is the executive director of Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children, an organization which works with children at risk of being imprisoned and their families. Follow her on Twitter @ginabwomack

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.