LITTLE ROCK — An Oscar-winning actor and the head of a national relief agency are scheduled to visit Arkansas on Monday to talk about the importance of breakfast among school children whose hunger distracts them while they are also trying to learn.
The Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance says the state scores in the top 10 nationwide for childhood food insecurity, meaning many kids don't know where their next meal is coming from. Many children go to school without having eaten a meal since the day before.
At Jones Elementary School in Rogers, about 98.5 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, Principal Melissa Fink said. Before December 2012, less than half of the students who met the criteria for the meals ate breakfast in school, causing students to make trips to the nurse's office because of stomach aches.
"The reason that kids weren't eating breakfast is it wasn't really cool," said Fink. "The older kids — third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders — didn't really perceive eating breakfast as something cool kids did. They wanted to sit outside in the hallways and visit with friends."
Because of the perceived stigma, as well as transportation limitations preventing kids from eating a school breakfast, schools around the nation are shifting breakfast meals out of the cafeteria and into classrooms in a program known as "Breakfast After the Bell" started by the No Kid Hungry campaign.
"Just the simple act of putting breakfast in class and taking it out of the cafeteria, they're giving hope to kids who before came too hungry to learn," said the campaign's spokesman, actor Jeff Bridges.
Bridges, who won an Academy Award for Crazy Heart and is also known for The Big Lebowski, became involved with the No Kid Hungry campaign through the larger Share Our Strength organization. It's also not the first hunger-awareness organization Bridges has worked for: He founded the End Hunger Network in 1983.
Jones Elementary is one of many Arkansas schools that have moved breakfast into the classroom, and Fink says that since the school has offered an alternate way to serve breakfast, the school now sees at least 97 percent of its students eating breakfast.
Amanda Gunther, a third-grade teacher at the school, says she's noticed an improvement in focus and participation in her class of 25 students. She says she often asks her students to signal how they're feeling at school with a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. Before the breakfast mealtime move, a lot of her students showed a thumbs-down to indicate they were exhausted, tired or sleepy.
Now, she says, it's the opposite.
"After we started eating breakfast, almost my entire class put a thumbs up for the day," she said. "They don't have to focus on their stomach; they can focus on the learning."
To highlight Arkansas' recent improvement, Bridges and Bill Shore, the CEO of Share Our Strength, are to visit Little Rock on Monday. They will meet with students at a Little Rock elementary school and participate in a panel discussion with Gov. Mike Beebe about the challenges Arkansas faces in alleviating childhood hunger.
According to officials from the No Kid Hungry campaign, only 55 percent of Arkansas children who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals are receiving breakfast meals.
In the last two years, about 135 Arkansas schools have enrolled in the campaign's "Breakfast After the Bell" food initiative.
The campaign's officials also say that in 2013, about 737,300 additional school breakfasts were served to Arkansas students who came from low-income backgrounds. About 1.5 million breakfast meals have been served in the state, too, since the No Kid Hungry campaign kicked off in 2010.