LANHAM, MARYLAND - It’s 8:30 a.m. on a weekday, and a line of hungry students is already forming at the door of the Thomas Johnson Middle School cafeteria in this Washington suburb.
"I really run out of the house before I can get any breakfast, so it’s good to have breakfast here ready for me," Tye-Ray Gutierrez says.
The 12-year-old grabs a breakfast pizza and serving of milk, saying he notices a difference when he doesn’t eat in the morning. “My energy level is way lower, and I can barely get through my day,” Gutierrez notes as he rushes to class.
The seventh-grader is among the school’s 1,000 students who take advantage of the morning meal served in the cafeteria or grab to-go items from a kiosk.
The school receives logistical support from Share Our Strength (SOS), a Washington-based nonprofit organization that helps the federal government and local partners fill youngsters' stomachs. Its No Kid Hungry campaign tackles the growing problem of child poverty and hunger.
"The United States is one of the richest, most powerful countries in the world, and we have one in five kids struggling with hunger," says Lucy Melcher, SOS’s associate director for advocacy.
Improving kids’ access to food
The organization provides logistical support and guidance to roughly 20,000 schools nationwide in setting up meal programs. That includes kiosks at which late-arriving students can pick up milk, cereal and fruit, then head straight to class. Since 2012, No Kid Hungry has served some 450 million meals.
"What we have seen here is that we know it’s a solvable problem. We have the food; we have the programs. We just need to do a better job of making sure the programs are reaching kids in need," Melcher notes.
At Thomas Johnson, more than 70 percent of the students qualify for reduced-price or free meals subsidized through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service. The measure serves as a proxy for poverty.
Nationwide, the number of potentially hungry students is growing.
For the first time in at least 50 years, slightly more than half of all U.S. children in public schools are living in low-income households, the Southern Education Foundation reported early last year. It found 51 percent were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
"This is a pretty scary statistic that we are facing, but the child nutrition programs like the school breakfast program and the summer meals program are really at the core of how we are going to solve this problem,” Share Our Strength’s Melcher says.
US families feel the squeeze
In 2014, UNICEF found 2.6 million children in the world’s richest countries had sunk below the poverty line since 2008. The United States ranked 36th out of 41 wealthy nations in the child poverty measure.
Melissa Boteach, vice president of Center for American Progress’ Poverty to Prosperity program, says the findings reflect growing income inequality in the United States.
She says between 2000 and 2012, while the costs of child care, health care, housing and other services went up an average of $10,000 for households with two parents and two children, wages remained flat or declined.
"What you are seeing is this squeeze on working families that’s really affecting people’s ability to get by and make ends meet," Boteach said. "Today, one in three Americans is living in a household that is either in poverty or on the brink of poverty — one paycheck, one broken-down car, one crisis away from being below the poverty line."
What lawmakers can do
This week, House Speaker Paul Ryan unveiled a Republican anti-poverty plan that would revise food, housing and other anti-poverty programs, increase work requirements and give states more flexibility on how to distribute federal money.
Democrats say the agenda will exacerbate poverty and inequality.
The Center for American Progress’ Boteach says policymakers must instead focus on raising the minimum wage, boosting labor standards and investing in children, whom she calls the nation’s poorest citizens.
"We cannot afford not to act. Child poverty is costing our economy $672 billion a year or nearly 4 percent of GDP because we pay for it down the line in increased health care costs, increased criminal justice expenditures and lower education and employment outcomes," she says.
Back at Thomas Johnson, seventh-grader Gutierrez knows all too well the importance of investing in low-income children and the value of programs like free or reduced-price meals.
“It’s better because for the kids who don’t get food at all when they go home — for the kids who are poor and live in poverty — they need this stuff.”