Many families in the U.S. that live at or near the poverty level cannot afford to provide nutritious meals at home every day. In 2013, more than 17.5 million (14.3 percent) of American households struggled with hunger, and almost one in five of those households included children.
The federal School Breakfast Program helps to fill that nutritional need for low-income children by providing a healthy morning meal each day. In the 2013-2014 school year, the program provided breakfast for 11.2 million low-income children on average per day, serving 343,000 more children per day than the previous school year.
Research has shown that a healthy breakfast can go a long way to improving the nutritional and mental well-being of a child. According to a Food Research and Action Center’s (FRAC) report , healthy breakfasts are linked with a lower rate of obesity, fewer incidences of tardiness, absenteeism and disciplinary problems, and fewer visits to the school nurse.
FRAC issues an annual School Breakfast Scorecard that presents data on national and state level participation, and ranks states based on their performance in reaching low-income children in school breakfast using school lunch participation as a benchmark. FRAC’s second report, “School Breakfast: Making it Work in Large School Districts,” looks at participation and best practices in large school districts around the country.
In the summer of 2014, FRAC surveyed school breakfast participation among 87 of the largest school districts in the U.S. The districts were selected based on the number of students and geographic representation, with the goal of looking at not just the nation’s most populous districts, but also schools districts in a substantial number of states.
Eleven districts met FRAC’s goal of reaching 70 low-income children with school breakfast for every 100 children participating in school lunch. With the national average of 53.2 low-income children eating breakfast for every 100 eating school lunch, those 11 districts are effectively improving their ability to meet the nutritional needs of their students.
In 2013-2014, 39 states saw an increase in the ratio of low-income children participating in the School Breakfast Program compared to low-income children in the National School Lunch Program. The District of Columbia, New Mexico and West Virginia had the highest ratio of low-income students participating in school breakfast compared to school lunch and met FRAC’s 70-student goal.
In contrast, the lowest performing states, Nebraska, New Hampshire and Utah, saw fewer than 40 low-income students participating in school breakfast per 100 participating in school lunch. If all states had met FRAC’s 70-student goal, more than 3.5 million more low-income children would have participated in school breakfast programs for the 2013-2014 school year.
“We can see that successful breakfast programs happen when the whole community gets involved,” said Jessie Hewins, senior child nutrition policy analyst for FRAC.
“Everyone can play a role—parents can ask schools to consider starting up a breakfast in the classroom program, principals can work with school officials to investigate programs like community eligibility, and school nurses can point out how improving breakfast participation leads to healthier students.”
Participation in the school breakfast programs can be a challenge for students, whether it’s the stigma associated with receiving the school’s breakfast or long bus rides that interfere with their ability to eat breakfast in school ahead of classes. All of the top-performing states utilize strategies that encourage low-income children to participate in school breakfast.
Many districts have incorporated innovative ways to reduce these roadblocks and make access to breakfast easier for students. Schools have begun moving breakfast into the classrooms and making it a regular start to the school day. This reduces the stigma for students in the school breakfast program, and sets aside time so that students have 10-15 minutes during their first class to eat during morning announcements or while teachers are taking roll.
The “Grab and Go” strategy allows students to grab a bagged meal on their way to class from carts or kiosks in the hallway or other high-traffic areas. Meals are eaten in a common area on the way to class, or in the classroom during the first 10-15 minutes of class. “Second Chance” is yet another strategy, which allows students to get breakfast after the first period, which works well for older students who may wish to eat later in the morning.
“Our findings continue to show just how effective breakfast in the classroom, grab and go, and community eligibility are in raising participation,” said Hewins. “California recently introduced a bill to serve breakfast after the bell. Colorado is about to see the first year impact of its breakfast after the bill program. More and more states are taking strong steps forward to get breakfast out of the cafeteria and into the hands of children.”
The deadline for school districts to indicate if they want to bring community eligibility to their schools is August 31. To support schools in taking that step, FRAC is co-hosting a series of webinars and has developed resources. For the School Breakfast Scorecard, click here. For the “School Breakfast: Making it Work in Large School Districts” report, click here.
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