This past Saturday was Yom Kippur, the Jewish people’s holiest day of the year. It is a day of atonement during which those observing the holiday fast for a 25-hour period and repent for their sins. For many, the fast is seen as exactly this — an opportunity to right our wrongs, overcoming our fundamental human needs in order to concentrate solely on the act of penance.
I started fasting for Yom Kippur when I was 13, and have done so every year since, but I am often conflicted about why I am doing it. Though I understand the sentiment behind the day of atonement, I have a hard time believing that one day of reflection on my wrongdoings can make them right.
I’ve begun to realize that the fast becomes a lot more meaningful when I think of it as a privilege, as something I am fortunate enough to opt into. Every other day of the year I wake up knowing that I will eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. It is a luxury to be able to fast for a holiday once a year when so many people spend their whole lives without the reassurance that they will have food on their tables.
I spent the entirety of Saturday in bed. The correct observation of Yom Kippur entails not doing any work, but with the stress of impending midterms, I attempted some reading midday. The fast made it so hard to focus that I could barely get through a single page. I quickly accepted defeat and put the book away.
I started thinking about people who go days on end without sufficient nourishment, in particular children who go to school hungry and are unable to perform to the best of their ability. If I was unable to do reading after half a day of fasting, how are children who go hungry for days on end expected to concentrate in school?
According to the charity Feeding America, in 2013, 14 percent of households in the United States were food insecure, and households with children reported food insecurity at a significantly higher rate. The problem of hunger is immense and complex, with no clear solution. That is not to say that there aren’t ways to improve conditions for households facing hunger, especially for children who need nourishment not only to grow physically but also mentally.
Currently, federal nutrition programs play a critical role in reducing child hunger. Free or reduced-price school lunches have been an effective way of feeding children during the day; this means, however, that many children are still going without breakfast, and therefore spend half the school day on an empty stomach. According to the Food Research and Action Center, children who skip breakfast are less able to differentiate among visual images, have lower math scores, are more likely to repeat a grade and have a higher prevalence of behavioral, emotional and academic problems.
School breakfast programs have been introduced around the country to enable schools to provide free or reduced-price breakfasts. The programs have been shown to be quite effective, resulting in improvements in math scores, attendance, punctuality, depression, anxiety and hyperactivity.
Still, these breakfast programs are not nearly as widespread as the National School Lunch Program. Although students receiving free or reduced-price lunches should also qualify for breakfast, fewer than half of them attend schools that provide both breakfast and lunch.
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, especially when children may have gone without sufficient dinner the night before. Although ending hunger is an enormous task, circumstances can be improved for children. Providing free breakfast and lunch for every child that needs it would substantially ameliorate this problem. Children’s very basic human needs must be satisfied before they can be expected to learn math and writing skills.
When we are constantly surrounded by food, so much that we have to exercise self-restraint, it becomes difficult to remember how fortunate we are. As we scrape our leftovers into the garbage and complain about low-quality meals in the dining halls, far too many people are grateful just to get a single meal in a day. It is crucial that we remember to recognize our own privileges, and in doing so push our communities to become a part of the solution to hunger.
Ally Daniels is a junior in Berkeley College. Her columns run on alternate Mondays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.