More low-income children across the country are participating in federally-funded school breakfasts, as districts create “Grab N Go” and other programs to serve children inside classrooms and not separately in cafeterias.
Still, nearly half the country’s eligible low-income students are missing out on breakfast.
During the last school year, about 11.2 million low-income children ate a morning meal each day at school, an increase of 320,000 children from the previous year, according to the Food Research and Action Center, a nonprofit working on hunger and nutrition in the United States.
In the past decade, the average daily school breakfast participation has risen by almost 50 percent, or by more than 3.5 million low-income children.
It’s important, said Carol Chong, a dietician and a nutrition advisor for The Alliance for a Healthier Generation, because “hungry children can’t learn.”
“There’s a lot of work to be done because people don’t understand the importance of breakfast,” she said. “The dots are still not connected. We see it come to life when schools go through the testing periods in the spring. Breakfast is promoted then, but not during the whole year. But in school, we should consider every day a test day when it comes to breakfast.”
Studies published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Pediatrics, and the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry report the negative effects of hunger on children’s academic performance and behavior in school.
The Alliance for a Healthier Generation is marking National School Breakfast Week, which begins Monday, with a School Breakfast webpage, which features success stories, resources to create breakfast programs and messages for social media, featuring the hashtag #NSBW. The Alliance was founded by the American Heart Association and the Clinton Foundation as a response to the growing rate of childhood obesity.
Last year, 53 low-income children ate breakfast at school for every 100 low-income children who participated in the school lunch program, up from a 43:100 ratio a decade earlier, according to FRAC’s recent reports, School Breakfast Scorecard and School Breakfast — Making it Work in Large Districts.
So, while there has been progress, there’s still a big gap between the number of children who participate in free- and reduced-price lunches and those who eat breakfast.
Many schools who provide those lunches don’t always participate in the breakfast program. In those that do, participation rates suffer because many schools serve breakfast well before buses arrive or in isolated cafeterias far from classrooms. The result is plenty of kids who haven’t had their first meal of the day and lost federal revenue at schools who often need it most.
That’s why alternative programs in which students can get foods such as breakfast wraps, yogurt or fruit directly in their classroom or from a cart in the hallway are becoming more popular. It can be served in the 10 to 15 minutes of routine morning activities, such as announcements, turning in homework or individual reading time. Also, a new federal option, the Community Eligibility Provision, allows high poverty schools a simpler way to offer free breakfast and lunch to all students, boosting participation.
“It’s not about eating breakfast as a concept, but about what are the ramifications,” Chong said. “You need to break the fast. Breakfast as the first meal of the day is the most important meal in terms of ones’ health, weight management and in terms of learning, academic achievement and behavior.”