In Miami-Dade County, one in five children go to bed hungry.
That’s according to Feeding South Florida’s 2016 analysis, the latest portrait available.
One group is trying to change those numbers. Live Healthy Miami Gardens (LHMG) has been working to lower these numbers since 2014. And it recently secured a $125,000 grant from the National League of Cities (NLC) and the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) to expand its efforts.
The grant will increase access to healthy food options for Miami Gardens students and families, working through 25 schools in the city.
Live Healthy Miami Gardens also will continue its food forests at three Miami Gardens schools, an initiative it began with The Education Fund, a nonprofit that boosts Miami-Dade public schools. In a food forest, students grow their own fruits, veggies and herbs in large garden plots. The produce is then incorporated into school lunch menus and school families can attend cooking and gardening classes.
“Food forests are food gardens, but bigger,” said Thamara Labrousse, program director of Live Healthy Miami Gardens. “They’re meant to engage school youth in the process of planting their own fruits, vegetables, and herbs, which will be incorporated in foods the kids get at school as part of the lunch menu.”
The three food forests have been built in Myrtle Grove Elementary, Parkview Elementary and Lake Stevens Elementary, with each forest occupying between 3,500 and 10,000 square feet of school grounds. With benches for students to sit on, the forests were built so teachers could hold classes in a green space and teach nutrition lessons.
The size of the gardens allow students to take home some of the fruits and veggies to cook in family meals.
LHMG will also work with the 25 schools to make sure children are getting breakfast. Many students who don’t have breakfast at home either come to school late or right when school starts, missing the free school breakfast.
“We know that when [students are] in the classroom hungry, it’s hard for them to learn,” Labrousse said. “They may be jittery during class time and become distracted and that can lead to them acting up during class.”
One proposal: Bring breakfast into the classroom by providing bagged meals that students can grab from the cafeteria on their way to class.
The program also trained parent volunteers and school faculty, called “Breakfast Champions,” to encourage students to eat breakfast at school.
“When kids do get to school before class starts, sometimes they care more about hanging out with their friends than eating breakfast,” Labrousse said. “By the time they get to class they realize that they’re hungry. Breakfast Champions will ask students if they’ve eaten breakfast and encourage them into the cafeteria if they haven’t.”
Part of the grant will go toward a communication campaign in partnership with Florida Impact and Catalyst Miami to raise awareness of existing federal nutrition programs that community members may not know about. These include the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).
These programs are especially important in the summer, when there is “a huge nutritional gap created because [students] no longer have access to healthy breakfast and healthy lunch,” Labrousse said.
City leaders recognize the gravity of the situation.
“It is our obligation and commitment to ensure that we provide access and the resources to combat food insecurity,” said Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert. “I applaud the National League of Cities and the Food Research and Action Center for their investment and partnership on this initiative.”