"It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men," began Governor Martin O'Malley yesterday morning, quoting Frederick Douglass to kick off a meeting at Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore on strategies to accelerate the achievement of our school breakfast participation goals.
Considered one of the highest poverty schools in the country (once the subject of an HBO documentary "Hard Times at Douglass High: A No Child Left Behind Report Card"), the school combines pride in alums like Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall with periods like 2004-2005 when more than 200-300 of its 1100 students were absent daily, and some seniors turned back graduation tickets for lack of having even a single guest to attend.
Convening the state superintendent of education, the acting CEO of Baltimore schools, the superintendent for Prince George's County, local foundations and the PTA was emblematic of O'Malley's commitment to ending childhood hunger in Maryland. Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry campaign to end childhood hunger has focused on connecting more kids in Maryland to school breakfast; having a leading governor adopt and stick with this issue so diligently is a victory in and of itself. Factor in the additional 57,000 Maryland children enrolled in school breakfast (with 30,000 left to go) and we have reason enough for giving thanks this holiday.
The discussion celebrated the success of serving breakfast in the classroom and grab-and-go meals, and included valuable practical lessons about implementation, such as: "Kindergarteners can't open milk cartons" and "old buildings without elevators are not conducive to wheeling breakfast carts to the classroom."
The meeting also represented a crucial turning point. It was not anti-hunger advocates arguing that hunger was an education issue, but instead educators forcefully making the case. Baltimore City Schools CEO Tisha Edwards talked about how "high poverty schools have to think about the whole child, we can't test ourselves into greatness."
Principal Antonio Hurt said hunger is also a safe schools issue and told of the times he's dealt with irritable and misbehaving students who in the privacy of his office said, "I'm just hungry." He argued for thinking holistically about the child and the school. "Our kitchen staff didn't feel connected or realize the role they played in ensuring ours kids get an education. 'If you're not cooking with love, don't cook,' I told them. Some kids are here 12 hours a day. This is the only place they eat. If we take care of the kids, they will take care of the school."
The anti-hunger community has often pointed out the link between hunger and academic success but for too long we heard back only the echo of our own voices. Finally new voices are being raised; the voices of teachers and principals on the front lines who are cognizant that academic achievement remains resistant to many well-intended reforms unless other basic needs of a child are also met. For educators, No Kid Hungry is evolving from a "nice to have" to an indispensable ingredient of academic success.
The true legacy of No Kid Hungry will not only be the grants and meals provided, but new voices being lifted into the national conversation. Creating a larger constituency has always been a key element of transformational change.
At the end of the hour Governor O'Malley said his next meeting was about Maryland's implementation of President Obama's Affordable Care Act: "Ending childhood hunger seems pretty manageable by comparison." He's right. Not easy by any means, but manageable. And we are getting closer every day.