Weekly Columns

March is National Nutrition Month. This is an important opportunity to recognize the role of Arkansas educators in promoting healthy eating habits. As a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, I’m working to ensure that the safe, affordable and nutritious food produced by Arkansas farmers reaches the next generation of Americans.  

As a former school board member, I’ve seen first hand that nutrition is critical to our children’s ability to thrive in the classroom. Far too many children in Arkansas face hunger. According to the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, more than 28 percent of Arkansas children struggle with hunger. 

Studies have shown that children who eat breakfast perform significantly better on standardized math tests and miss school less often. Unfortunately, many children start the day on an empty stomach, but educators in Arkansas are finding ways to ensure students get the nutrition they need to succeed in the classroom.  

Matt Mellon, Principal of Daisy Bates Elementary School in Little Rock, was recognized as a ‘School Breakfast Hero’ by the No Kid Hungry campaign. During National School Breakfast Week in early March, the organization highlighted Mellon’s work to incorporate breakfast as part of the classroom routine. Mellon said that implementing breakfast in the classroom has helped reduce discipline issues, tardiness and visits to the school nurse. 

Arkansas schools are working to promote healthy, nutritious eating habits. I saw this firsthand during a recent visit to Washington Elementary School in Fayetteville. Students help grow food in the school garden and local food is incorporated into the lunch menu as part of the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Farm to School program. 

The USDA Farm to School Census 2015 indicates 47 Arkansas school districts participate in farm to school activities and another 18 percent plan to get involved in the program. 

In addition to promoting healthy eating, the schools invest in the community by buying locally. According to USDA figures from the 2013-2014 school year, Arkansas schools spent more than $1.2 million on local food and most planned to increase local food purchases in the future. 

Arkansas schools are stepping up to the challenge of combating hunger and creating a foundation for lifelong healthy habits. The summer months, when school is out of session, is another hurdle to nutritious meals. For many Arkansas children who rely on the regular meals provided at school, summer may mean they don’t know when their next meal will come. 

More than 50,000 Arkansas children receive summer meals through the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program. Unfortunately, 16 percent of children from low-income families live in communities that are not able to operate an open summer meals site. That’s why I’m working to update the program. 

Earlier this year the Senate Agriculture Committee included legislation I authored to reform the summer meals program in a comprehensive reauthorization of the nation’s child nutrition programs. This will make federal child nutrition programs more efficient and flexible to reach children in need during the summer months when school meals are not available. 

Nutrition is critical to development and success in the classroom. Providing students access to healthy food is important to breaking the cycle of food insecurity.