Filling Stomachs, and Fueling Minds

By Jessica Shelly
August 6, 2015
Young girl eating breakfast and reading at a table

“I can’t tell you how hungry I used to be.” That is what a high school student told me one day when I asked her how she was enjoying her breakfast.

Like many students enrolled in Cincinnati Public Schools, this young lady did not have access to breakfast at home and used to wait for hours until lunch time before getting her first meal every day.

As the food service director for Cincinnati Public Schools, I’m part of an orchestra of people working in concert to create citizens who are prepared for life. Nutrition plays an enormous role in achieving that goal – I know that when our kids aren’t eating regularly and don’t have access to healthy foods, they aren’t fueled and ready to learn. Regular, nutritious meals are essential to a child’s success in school. According to several sources[1], children experiencing hunger are more likely to be absent and tardy, and have behavioral and attention problems.

Thanks to a grant from Action for Healthy Kids, which was made possible through a grant from the Walmart Foundation, we have been able to level the playing field for students like that high school student who used to spend half of her school day with an empty stomach. We have implemented programs for the 35,000 students in our district to provide universal breakfast in the classroom, have salad bars with fresh fruits and vegetables in our lunch rooms and have vending machines stocked with healthier options in the hallways.

For us, it’s not just about giving meals, but also about developing relationships that will sustain our students through the school year. Our teachers participate in our feeding programs alongside our students, so they can act as role models for making healthy choices. 

As students and teachers prepare to head back to school this fall, I know that our school district is not alone in working to fulfill this need. According to the USDA, nearly 3.8 million households with children in the United States were food insecure in 2013. While that figure may seem daunting, I’m encouraged by my school’s mission – and by my role through good nutrition – to help make a difference for our students, one meal at a time.


[1] American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Pediatrics and the Journal of the American Academy and Adolescent Psychiatry