In an op-ed for the Keystone, Aaron Chapin, a Stroudsburg Area middle school teacher and president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, outlines the benefits of universal free school breakfast for public school students.
Over the years, school nurses have told me that one of the most common but preventable ailments that sends kids to the nurse’s office is hunger.
Students who don’t eat breakfast in the morning and try to learn on an empty stomach often end up feeling sick and disjointed. I saw it firsthand as a middle school teacher for more than two decades in the Stroudsburg Area School District.
School nurses often keep snacks and juice on hand because they get so many midmorning visits from students who haven’t eaten breakfast and are simply hungry. But by then the damage has been done. The student is feeling sick and already missing class time.
Which is why school nurses, educators, and support professionals are celebrating a new state-funded program in Pennsylvania to provide universal free breakfast to every public school student.
It is a priority for Gov. Josh Shapiro — and for good reason. He understands what our school nurses, social workers, and educators know: When students have regular access to a healthy and nutritious breakfast, they come to class energized, focused, and ready to learn.
In the words of Marsha Ganter, a school social worker in the Reading School District: “Children need nutritious food on a consistent basis to learn and grow to their potential.”
Numerous research studies back this up. Students who eat breakfast miss fewer school days and show better results in their classrooms. For these reasons alone, the governor’s school breakfast program is a smart investment.
But there are also major health benefits for students. According to the School Nutrition Association, students who eat breakfast have better concentration and memory, are more alert, and are better able to maintain healthy weights. Students who take part in school meal programs are also more likely to eat fruits and vegetables.
A state-funded breakfast program also frees up food service workers in our schools to focus on preparing and serving nutritious meals to students rather than worrying about unpaid meal debt.
Pennsylvania’s universal breakfast program is a great example of what we can accomplish when elected leaders come together in collaboration with educators and experts to act in the best interests of our students.
There is a larger discussion going on right now about how we fund our public schools in Pennsylvania. Lawmakers are traveling the state with the Basic Education Funding Commission and other legislative committees to hear directly from educators, parents, and experts about what’s working in our public schools, what challenges they face, and what students really need.
Universal school breakfast is only one part of the puzzle. We need to invest in students’ academic and mental health needs as well as safe and healthy buildings and measures to address educator and school staff shortages.
Lawmakers are going to hear about many of these issues during education hearings this fall. It is critically important that they use the information they gain from these hearings to develop tangible solutions to meet our constitutional obligation and provide the resources Pennsylvania’s 1.7 million public school students need to succeed.
Students come to school to learn, but they can’t do that unless they are fueled by good nutrition. The new universal breakfast program is helping make sure that happens.
Now we need to make sure that our public schools have the resources they need to meet the many other needs that students have when they pass through the schoolhouse doors.