How Feeding Hungry Children Strengthens Local Economies

Photo Source Adrian Martino

By Eric F. Frazier 

Maureen Berner, professor of public administration and government at the UNC School of Government, heads the North Carolina Hunger Project, which tracks hunger and food insecurity in the state. This position gives her keen insights into the causes of childhood hunger and possible solutions, a ready command of the facts, and a platform to spread her message that a lack of resources is not the obstacle.

“This is logistics, people. This is solvable,” Berner told a crowd of more than 2,000 people at a recent TEDx Talk at Wake Forest University, titled “Local Economic Security? Think Childhood Hunger.” 

Berner noted that Netflix has transformed how movies are delivered; FedEx has transformed how packages are delivered; and Uber has transformed how people move from place to place. “Why can’t we transform how we deliver food to kids?” she asked.

Her presentation contained three takeaways about childhood hunger: 

  • The problem is worse than we think.
  • It may be bad, but it’s fixable.
  • To fix it, we need to transform how we think about it. 

Childhood hunger affects individuals, families, schools, and communities, creating immediate and future problems.

“Research shows that kids coming into school hungry are lethargic,” Berner said. “They can’t stay focused. They can’t stay on task. Kids who come with breakfast have higher attendance rates and do better with educational achievement tests.” 

Public policymakers use the percentage of children eligible for free or reduced-price lunch as a gauge of childhood hunger, knowing it does not include children younger than 5 or children in families whose incomes are just above the cutoff.

In North Carolina, 851,000 children, or 57 percent of students in K–12 public schools, qualify for free or reduced-price lunch programs. However, these programs are not reaching their full potential, making the hunger problem worse than most realize.

In elementary schools, the participation rate is about 70 percent for free or reduced-price lunches, but only half that number receive breakfast. At the middle school level, the percentage drops by half, and, at the high school level, it is halved again.

Most troubling, Berner said, is what happens when schools are out of session for weekends, teacher workdays, snow days, holidays, and summer breaks. The summer version of the program reaches only 17 percent of eligible children because they lack transportation to school cafeterias and makeshift lunchrooms at community sites like church basements or recreation centers.

“I want you to think about a hungry second-grader,” she said. “They’re graduating in 10 years. Fifty-seven percent of our public school kids are coming from hungry households. … That’s the workforce that we want to be prepared and ready, so I hope you business owners out there have this built into your 10-year strategic plan.”

Berner encouraged businesspeople and local officials to think of hungry children as an opportunity to capture available federal reimbursements of $3.50 per meal per child.

“The 83 percent of that 851,000 kids that we are not reaching, represents a lost economic opportunity of $2.7 million a day that could be pumped into the North Carolina economy,” she noted.

To illustrate her point, Berner cited Jim Keaton, executive director of Durham Public Schools’ nutrition service. Keaton envisioned bringing breakfast to all children in their classrooms, thus removing the stigma that can be associated with eating free breakfast in school cafeterias. He wrote a business plan and won a grant to purchase carts that made delivery possible. Through careful budgeting, he has a few cents left over from each meal reimbursement to expand the program.

“In seven years, Jim is going to be serving breakfast in the classroom to every child in the Durham Public Schools system,” Berner said. “He came at it with business acumen, and with a plan in order to think about this from a logistics perspective.”

Keaton adapted his program to reach hungry children during the summer at meal sites across Durham County and now employs more than 350 people, 225 of them full-time workers earning $12 or more per hour with benefits. His federal reimbursements have funneled $600,000 back into the local economy, supporting delivery drivers, farmers, and grocers. Still, his efforts have raised the summer participation rate to only 26 percent, leaving a lot of money on the table.

Berner, who analyzed budgets at the U.S. General Accounting Office before joining the School of Government in 1998, envisions broad public-private partnerships in which existing food establishments provide free summer meals to eligible children in exchange for reimbursements.

“We need to transform this,” she said. “We can push for incremental changes, but we’re still not reaching the potential that we could. Feeding kids now, means local jobs now … a stronger workforce in the future … better markets for our local businesses … and, of course, it’s the right thing to do.”