Dorothy McAuliffe has spent most of her time as the first lady of Virginia trying to make sure low-income children are fed before and during the school day.

“We cannot have 13 million hungry children in the United States of America,” she says. “It doesn’t need to be that way. We have enough food to feed ourselves and the world.”

In 2014, her husband, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, put her in charge of working with state agencies, the legislature, nonprofits and businesses to tackle child hunger. It's clear to anti-hunger advocates that he made the right decision: The number of public schools in Virginia now offering universal free breakfast and lunch has increased 297 percent in three years. 

That's partially due to a change in federal law but also because of Mrs. McAuliffe's outreach. She organized a summit with school administrators and wrote a letter to school superintendents asking them to expand summer meals programming. 

Then she took her show on the road.

With her success in Virginia, McAuliffe led a First Spouses' Initiative around the issue for the National Governors Association (NGA). In February, she spearheaded an NGA panel discussion on child hunger with 40 governors and their spouses. In June, Virginia hosted a two-day "learning lab" where 10 governors sent their staff to learn from researchers, anti-hunger advocates and program specialists on reducing child hunger. 

Research shows eating breakfast is associated with improved academic performance, such as better math scores and higher grades. Last year in the United States, more than 21 million children from low-income families received free or reduced-price lunch through a federal school nutrition program. But barely half took advantage of a similar program for school breakfast. And fewer than one in five participated in the summer meals programs. 

Bus schedules or parents' work schedules often prevent students from arriving early enough to take advantage of breakfast in the cafeteria. Schools can offer other options, such as packaged breakfast on the bus or breakfast delivered to the classroom, but school officials sometimes balk at making those changes, says Claire Mansfield, the director of No Kid Hungry Virginia, a chapter of the national nonprofit Share Our Strength.

"Principals, especially in high-poverty schools, have competing priorities and tight budgets," she says.

Offering alternative breakfast options can mean one-time start-up costs for breakfast delivery carts or new trash cans. That's where the first ladies come in. Thanks to them, lawmakers in states like Virginia and Nevada have set aside several million dollars in grant money to pay for start-up equipment, such as ovens, refrigerators and carts. 

  Dorothy McAuliffe, left, and her husband, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, serving lunch to students in Richmond, Va. (David Kidd)

 

Gov. McAuliffe, a Democrat, has butted heads with Republican leadership in the legislature on a range of issues -- from gun control to expanding Medicaid -- but they found common ground on school meals. The legislature approved the governor’s request for more than $2.5 million to help schools expand access to nutrition programs.

“This is a bipartisan issue,” says Mansfield. “At the end of the day, we’re trying to feed hungry kids, and that doesn’t know any political party.”

If schools can afford the initial start-up costs, they can then tap into millions in federal dollars because Congress fully funds the school meals programs without requiring a state or local match. (The federal funding, however, only pays for the meals, not start-up or any other associated costs.) In Virginia, for example, a $1.7 million investment to help schools sign up children for school breakfast brought in $18 million in additional federal reimbursements.

Collectively, states missed out on $836 million in federal funding in the 2015-2016 school year because so few of their eligible students make use of subsidized school breakfast, according to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), a national anti-hunger advocacy group.  

In Virginia, the McAuliffes have seen measurable gains. In the last three years, school breakfast participation rose from 53 percent to 61 percent, summer meals participation rose from 13 percent to 15 percent, and afterschool meals participation rose from 1 percent to 8 percent.

The participation growth in Virginia resembles trends across the country, according to annual reports from FRAC. In the 2015-2016 school year, for every 100 students receiving subsidized lunch, 56 received subsidized breakfast. That's up from 51.9 in the 2012-2013 school year.

In 2010, Congress enabled schools and school districts to provide free meals to all students if 40 percent of their families are already on another federal program for low-income households, such as food stamps or welfare. Although the law passed in 2010, the so-called Community Eligibility Provision rolled out in phases and only became available to all states in 2014.

That change is driving the increased participation in school meals programs, but without the outreach and funding push from the Dorothy McAuliffes of the world, some districts might never take advantage of it.