Principal Matt Mellor said ‘yes’ and it made all the difference.
Mellor, principal at Lawson Elementary, Pulaski County School District, told 150 people during the No Kid Hungry Dinner at 21c Museum Hotel in Bentonville on Monday night (June 12), that he thought he had an efficiency problem. Mornings were chaotic and stressful trying to get 300 children through the breakfast line in the cafeteria before school.
Because his was a high-poverty school, with over 90 percent of its 500 students on free and reduced-price lunch, many children needed to eat breakfast at school, creating Mellor’s dilemma.
“I had a problem with kids coming off the bus … and they were coming into the cafeteria and my cafeteria was overloaded. And I couldn’t get those kids through that line quick enough to get them to class on time.” Mellor said. “They were cramming into my cafeteria, and my teachers were upset, (saying) ‘sit down, be quiet, sit down, be quiet, move, move, move.’”
When a group approached Mellor with the idea of serving breakfast to students in the classroom with their teacher after the school day started, he said yes. It was then he understood that he didn’t have an efficiency problem – he had a hunger problem. Of the 300 children who stood in line for breakfast, only 200 were served each day.
“The other 100 kids a day were giving up,” Mellor said. “One hundred kids were saying, ‘I don’t care if I get breakfast or not, because I don’t want to be yelled at by my teacher. I just want to get to class and start my day.’”
Mellor realized that hunger caused many of the problems in his school.
“If you don’t get the food you need, all you can think about is how hungry you are and you stare at the clock on the wall and say, when do I get my next meal?” Mellor said. “Here you are in the classroom and you’re starving. So what do you do? You raise your hand and say, “Can I go see the nurse? Can I go get a drink of water? Can I go to the bathroom? Whatever it takes to get out of the classroom and buy yourself some time. And it causes discipline problems.
“Education is meant to solve these problems and instead we were missing the boat,” he said.
In the first semester after beginning the program of eating in the classroom, Mellor saw nurse visits drop by 300. Discipline problems dropped by half. Grades improved. Test scores improved. The reason was as simple as making sure children ate breakfast.
“Because I did something as basic as say, ‘Yes, eat breakfast’, I solved my problem,” Mellor said.
Mellor also realized that when the children and the teacher ate the same meal together in the classroom, the atmosphere of the classroom changed.
“Now I have a teacher who is not just providing that meal, but eating with (the kids) and the conversation changes in the classroom. Now it’s not the teacher yelling at me to get on, move to wherever you need to be,” he said.
Mellor said students felt cared about when teachers created a community around food.
“So doesn’t it make sense that kids act better? Doesn’t it make sense that their scores improve?” Mellor said. “I said ‘yes’ to a program that would solve what I thought was my need, and in the end I received so much more.”
Mellor told his story as part of the No Kid Hungry campaign, sponsored nationally by Share Our Strengths. According to their statistics, in Arkansas, one in four children struggles with hunger. Nationally, one in six, or 13 million children, don’t get the food they need.
The No Kid Hungry campaign “connects kids in need with nutritious food and teaches their families how to cook healthy, affordable meals.” It also works to help the public understand the need to make ending child hunger a national priority.
The success of the campaign in Arkansas is evident by the fact that the state had been number one in the country for food insecurity. However, through the work of No Kid Hungry, the state government and volunteers, Arkansas is now recognized as having the largest increase of summer meals served to kids facing hunger of any state in the country. Presently, all 75 counties in Arkansas offer free summer meals.
The No Kid Hungry Dinner in Bentonville was hosted, for the second year, by Matthew McClure, executive chef of The Hive at 21c Museum Hotel. McClure was a James Beard Award semifinalist for the “Best Chef of the South” award in 2014-2017. McClure said the event is important to him because he is interested in childhood nutrition and in how he can use his work as a chef to improve what children eat.
“I’m also a father, too, and to think of my daughter … if I wasn’t able to take care of her … that just breaks my heart,” McClure said. “It also breaks my heart to know that one in four kids in Arkansas struggles with hunger. It is a problem that has a solution.”
During the evening guests enjoyed a four-course meal prepared by four chefs: McClure; Matt Cooper, executive chef of The Preacher’s Son; Dominic Luzzo, chef of Fiamma 1873; Luke Wetzel, chef/owner of Oven & Tap, and Annie Pettry, chef/partner at Decca Restaurant in Louisville, Ky.
Tickets for the event were $150 per person and $2,500 per table. A live auction, hosted by Daniel Hintz, CEO and Principal at Velocity Group, included date nights for a year at area restaurants and a two-night stay at the 21c Museum Hotel in Oklahoma City; a whole hog roast at Cobblestone Farm in Fayetteville for 20 guests; a weekend for two in Louisville, Ky., in a private loft at Decca restaurant; and a four-course dinner party for 12 in your home, hosted by area chefs.
Organizers raised $45,000 from the evening. All the money will go to fight childhood hunger in Arkansas through No Kid Hungry. Sponsors for the evening included Citi and Sysco Arkansas.