Feeding the Body Before Feeding the Mind

By Minnesota Representative Kim Norton

As the recession abates and demographic changes unfold, we are faced with this fact: Jobs are available but the skilled workforce needed is not. Across the country, states are faced with finding successful ways to train or retrain adults looking for work to fill the jobs of today. They also are addressing the issues impeding the success of the pipeline of students in our K-16 system to assure our prosperity as a nation in the future.
The CSG “State Pathways to Prosperity” initiative looks broadly at the issues that contribute to the workforce difficulties we face, such as children living in poverty, people battling hunger and poor nutrition, veterans’ difficulties in meeting certification and degree requirements, and people who have been involved in the criminal justice system being disqualified from employment. Helping states address these issues will provide our nation with the workforce it needs and has the additional benefit of improving the health of our country’s citizens and lowering health care costs in general.
In a recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we learn that more than 14 percent of American families—or 17.5 million Americans—struggle with hunger and were considered to be food insecure, with 5.6 percent suffering a “very low” food security rating. Working family incomes often cannot cover family expenses and families are reaching out to food banks and community support systems to meet basic needs. These support systems also have struggled under economically stressful times and new creative approaches are needed.
Our bipartisan committee consists of members representing various levels of government from around the country, as well as industry representatives. Our overall goals are to increase community and school access to healthy and nutritious foods, improve public education and awareness about nutrition and healthy eating, increase flexibility for benefit programs and encourage states to review their policies to remove barriers to addressing hunger and nutrition issues.
We recognize that being able to prioritize academics or employment will be impeded by the lack of food in the home environment. We have acknowledged that our best workforce cannot be realized if our employees are focused on their empty stomach or how to provide the next meal for themselves or their family; that our students cannot meet the highest academic standards if they arrive at school hungry, without breakfast and/or forgo lunch because of insufficient funds or food. Additionally, we understand that less healthful and nutritious foods are commonly cheaper—and often more readily available—leading to poor health outcomes, increased health care costs and missed days from work and school.
For the past several months, our group has discussed a variety of issues such as food deserts (lack of access to food), farm to school/table initiatives, food expiration date impacts, school breakfast and lunch programs, healthy choices of food and beverages in schools, food pricing and placement issues, the need for nutrition and food preparation information, federal rule impact on state policy and the need for state flexibility in SNAP and other federal programs.
Studies have demonstrated that food insecurity in early childhood is associated with impaired brain development, lower academic achievement and more hospitalizations. Contrast that with research that shows kids who eat breakfast have higher scores on standardized math tests and attend school more often, which improves the likelihood of graduation. Since one in five American kids struggle with hunger, we are safe in saying that hunger and nutrition issues negatively impact future economic prosperity due to a less competitive workforce and higher health care costs.
The link between education and future success is clear—the more education a person has, the better chance they have to become employed, earn a living, support themselves and a family, pay taxes and contribute to the community in which they live. With more of the jobs of the future requiring learning beyond high school—be that a credential, certificate or two- or four-year degree—we must ensure the success of more young people in our public school system. In fact, a 2013 report from McKinsey & Company noted that improving K–12 and higher education could raise the nation’s gross domestic product by as much as $265 billion by 2020 and could add as much as $1.7 trillion to the GDP by 2030.
As CSG’s leaders believe in promoting the initiative, “young people and adults must be provided the foundational skills they need to be successful, which ultimately will lead to increased state prosperity.”
These studies show us we must address the social issues, like hunger and nutrition, for our learners in order to maximize their abilities and increase their chances for success in our schools and our workplaces for our country’s long-term success.
Our committee is seeking to produce a set of guidelines and policy recommendations for states to consider in addressing hunger and nutrition as part of their own efforts to create Pathways to Prosperity.

Subcommittee on Hunger & Nutrition

» Distribute information on healthy, thrifty meals to elementary and secondary students;
» Coordinate efforts for businesses to offer nutrition education to employees through wellness programs by providing incentives and working with insurance companies;
» Improve access to and education about healthy foods and encourage business cafeterias to serve healthy options;
» Create a statewide healthy food campaign through departments of public health; and
» Encourage school policies in healthy and nutritious food options for K–12 schools to ensure students are focused on learning the skills necessary for a strong and healthy future workforce.
» Review current laws to remove barriers that prevent access to local foods at both the departments of education and agriculture; and
» Encourage districts to leverage federal school nutritional programs to ensure children are not 
hungry during the school day.
» Allow universal use of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits at farmers markets;
» Review congressional restrictions on free school breakfast and lunch through federal funds administered by the states;
» Provide incentives and bonuses to encourage 
nutritious food purchases with SNAP funding; and
» Encourage more research about expired perishable foods and review the need for additional restrictions.