If you would have told me a few months ago that I would be invited to the White House, I would have thought you were crazy. Being included in the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health in September was an honor I couldn't have dreamed of. Since then, I've felt compelled to use my voice on behalf of the nearly half a million students across Arkansas.
We aren't just a statistic. There are real kids struggling every day here in Benton because they don't know where their next meal is going to come from. I see it in the lunchroom when students sit with no food in front of them, because they are no longer eligible for healthy school meals that were made available to everyone during the pandemic and ended when the school year began.
This is happening right here in Arkansas, not to mention in schools and communities across the country.
When I went to Washington, I learned so much about the history of these important issues from other American Heart Association advocates who have been working to improve nutrition policies for decades. It shocked me to learn that there had not been a White House conference like this in more than 50 years. I heard about what resulted from that conference and what our representatives in Congress have done to address food and nutrition security.
I also learned more about how providing healthy school meals for students at no charge reduces food insecurity, improves children's nutrition and academic performance, and decreases stigma.
The last part really stuck out to me because I have seen it firsthand. It may sound silly, but during the pandemic when everyone had access to healthy school meals, the stigma in the cafeteria disappeared. It was like magic.
Not only did I feel like I learned things I can use in my everyday life, but being at the conference left me feeling like I could go out and take action on important issues. And in the less than two months since I got home from Washington, D.C., I have done just that.
The trip to the conference has given me the opportunity to speak to local TV stations about what Congress can do to address the nutrition cliff many children are facing, and connect with local organizations that are working to provide food, resources and education to teenagers and their families to inspire healthy eating.
The good news is that Congress already has the ingredients to come up with a recipe for student success. But they must act before the end of the year to ensure that students across Arkansas and the country can have access to the nutritious school meals they need to thrive.
I'm calling on my representatives in Washington--especially Sen. John Boozman who is ranking member of the committee that will write a child nutrition bill--to help all children start down a path to a lifetime of healthy eating.
Bella Crowe of Benton is a youth advocate for the American Heart Association.