Combatting Food Insecurity for Kids

Daniel Banta ’18

For most St. Lawrence students, having access to breakfast is easy enough. As long as you can wake up before class, breakfast is only a card swipe away. But for millions of children across America, access to a good breakfast is a challenge. One student at St. Lawrence is trying to address this issue.

“I think everyone should eat. If you don’t eat you can’t concentrate,” explains Jake Ruehl ’20, a government major and Arabic minor from East Hampton, New York. In order to help local children, he piloted the Free Breakfast for Kids initiative in early 2017. The initiative provided a free, healthy breakfast for children in Canton, New York, during an eight-week span last Spring. 

Ruehl points out that if more children are fed, they will have a better chance of passing their classes. Studies back him up. A 2013 meta-study published in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that most studies on the effects of breakfast on academic performance show a positive correlation between consuming breakfast and performing well in school. 

According to the New York State Department of Health, one in three children in St. Lawrence County is living in poverty. The high poverty rate translates to widespread food insecurity. Feeding America, a non-profit focused on ending hunger, calculated that 13.9 percent of people in St. Lawrence County are food insecure.

The inspiration for Ruehl to create the program came from an unlikely source. “I was attending an exhibit on the Black Panthers at the Queens Museum in January 2017,” he says, and goes on to explain that he was amazed to learn how this group—regarded as radical and divisive by some—started a successful free breakfast program in 1968 that fed thousands of students over the next decade. Once Ruehl returned to St. Lawrence, he started his own free breakfast program to help Canton-area children. 

At first, Ruehl struggled to find a location to serve breakfast, but he eventually settled on the Deep Root Center (DRC) in Canton, an alternative learning community for children ages 5 through 19. However, the DRC lacks a full kitchen, which meant getting the program off the ground required some problem-solving.

“We actually made our own kitchen,” explains Ruehl. He and a group of volunteers secured appliances such as a griddle and, with the help of around 20 St. Lawrence students, began to serve a weekly breakfast to any student at the DRC every Tuesday for the eight-week run. 

In January 2018, taking what he learned from the Canton pilot, Ruehl focused his attention on bringing the program to his hometown on Long Island. He financed the program with a GoFundMe campaign, which raised more than $5,000. He also partnered with a local restaurant and began to serve children a free meal every Monday morning. In the first three weeks, the number of children attending Free Breakfast for Kids operated in East Hampton increased. Ruehl says he hopes to expand his hometown program further by offering breakfast on additional days and potentially in more restaurants.

While the primary aim of Free Breakfast for Kids is to help address food insecurity, Ruehl notes that there was another important motivation behind starting the program: “The other part is getting people together, Democrats and Republicans, Bernie or Trump supporters, all behind this program. We all want to feed kids.” 

So far, clubs ranging from SLU Republicans to SLU Democrats have expressed interest in supporting the Free Breakfast for Kids initiative. With the help of these and other student clubs and organizations, Ruehl intends to resume serving breakfast to children in the Canton area. “I think the issue of food insecurity is one that any community member can get behind,” he says. 

The Canton program will eventually move to the Unitarian Universalist Church. But before Ruehl and his group can begin to serve meals to the public, the full kitchen will need to be certified by the St. Lawrence County Public Health Department. Reuhl remains optimistic: “Once we get set-up,” he says, “we will soon be providing a free, healthy breakfast to children who need it.”

Illustration: Pim/