08/23/2012 02:26 pm ET Updated Oct 23, 2012

Tackling the Scourge of Child Hunger

"Start every day with a good breakfast." How many of us heard this as kids in school?

Many of us don't eat breakfast, content to fuel up later in the day. But what if you're a child that missed breakfast because your family simply doesn't have the food or the money to buy it? If you skipped breakfast this morning, you have something in common with about 16 million poor children in the U.S.

A new survey from Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit, provides a startling look at the faces of hunger awaiting teachers as they return to classrooms this month. In a nationwide poll of K-8 public school teachers, three out of five reported that children in their classrooms regularly come to school hungry. Among those teachers, 80 percent said children come to school hungry at least once a week, and more than half who witness hunger say the problem is getting worse.

If we're honest with ourselves, the faces of hunger are everywhere -- in every area, every city and every demographic. The 2012 edition of the 'Kids Count' report, one of the most widely quoted surveys on the condition of children in the U.S., indicates that child poverty is mounting. This is not just an issue of an extra donut or bagel. This is chronic hunger affecting millions of children every day, and the consequences are staggering.

Malnourishment can hinder more than just a child's physical development; it can impair cognitive and behavioral development as well. Children without proper nutrition face slower growth, more illnesses, and fatigue. Hungry children are twice as likely to be absent from school and four times as likely to experience difficulty concentrating than their peers who are not suffering from hunger.

The ultimate tragedy is that hunger is totally preventable. The Great Recession has exacerbated child poverty, yet the social safety net has helped alleviate some of this suffering. For instance, food stamps reduced the number of children living in extreme poverty by half last year. In the Share Our Strength survey, a majority of teachers (56 percent) say "a lot" or "most" of their students rely on school meals as their primary source of nutrition.

I'm tempted to rant about a cruel Congress willing to slash school meal programs and the safety net sustaining many children and families, and a Republican presidential ticket that co-signs this shameful approach. But I digress.

Ensuring that children have breakfast in the morning is vital to reducing child hunger and improving student learning. Recognizing this critical link, NEA is supporting the expansion of school breakfast programs that provide children with nutritious meals. Through the NEA Health Information Network's Breakfast in the Classroom, we worked in partnerships at the national and local levels to feed some 10,000 students last year. We're creating and sharing resources to increase public understanding about the severity of child hunger, and building networks of NEA members across the country, taking action to end child hunger.

Teachers and education support professionals know students can't learn if they are hungry. We will continue to accelerate our work to educate the public about the prevalence and impact of hunger on America's children. Until the scourge of child hunger in America ends, we all have a role to play to make sure children have the nutrition they need to do their best at school.