Childhood hunger is an epidemic in the United States, with as many as 16 million children living in households where food is considered insecure. Over 20 percent of children in 16 states and the District of Columbia live in homes where regular meals are uncommon. One Gallup poll reveals that at least once between 2008 and 2009, 40 percent of D.C. households with children did not have enough money to buy food.

Consequently, the D.C. public school district has taken a step towards curbing hunger rates. As the Washington Post reports, some D.C. schools now provide free, locally grown healthy meals to as many as 10,000 students.

The new dinner option for many D.C. students is part of a program that will cost the school system around $5.7 million. Free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch have been part of the school district for a while, but teachers began noticing students’ flagging energy at the end of the day. Often, students were in school or after-school programs until well into the evening.

Further, many children simply were not eating at home. Jeff Mills is the director of food services for D.C. schools. As he told the Washington Post, "We knew that a lot of kids were only eating at school.” In 2008, children living in homes without enough food went from 13 million to nearly 17 million, in part due to the faltering economy. Alexandra Ashbrook is the director of D.C. Hunger Solutions, a group providing services to low-income residents. She told the Post that many students were taking food home to feed their families.

Now, students at 99 of Washington D.C.’s 123 schools are getting a third meal comprised of locally grown vegetables and fruits. Experts note that many of these students do not get fruits or vegetables in their home meals. In 2009, a study by the D.C. Health Department noted that 43 percent of students enrolled were obese. Food choices now include fresh vegetables and bean salads. However, many students are still choosing pizza and Doritos over healthier options.

David Strong is the culinary director for Fresh Start, the service that provides fresh meals to the D.C. school district. He points out that teachers and students have been challenging to convert to a healthier lifestyle. According to Strong, “These kids are getting wonderful from-scratch cooking, and then they go back to their homeroom and it smells like a quarter-pounder with cheese, where teachers are walking up and down the hall with their big Wendy's cups." Luckily, he notes that teachers, like students, are starting to come around to healthier foods.

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MNN homepage photo: Toby Talbot/AP