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Summer 2011

What About Breakfast?

PancakePublished as a sidebar to Ed. magazine feature, "Lunch Line."

If 101,000 schools are providing 31 million low-income children with lunch every day, why are only 11 million children getting breakfast?

“There’s a disparity in the number of schools that offer breakfast, and it’s about 20,000 schools less,” says Jean Daniel, public affairs director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service. “We have been actively promoting that schools that offer lunch should also offer breakfast, and those numbers have steadily gone up over the past decade.” But, she adds, “there are a number of hurdles still to expanding school breakfast to those who need it.”

Among those hurdles are timing and transportation. For children who ride a bus to school each day, being late can compromise the chance to have a few bites of cereal or a bagel in the cafeteria. So too can an early start: If breakfast begins at 6:30 a.m. and ends at 7 a.m., some students and their parents may opt out.

For the 11 million children who do take part, 9.1 million are eligible for free and reduced-price breakfast, costing $2.9 billion in fiscal year 2009. For participating schools, the federal reimbursement rates are $1.48 for free breakfast, $1.18 for reduced-price, and 26 cents for paid.

“The School Breakfast Program is the most useful anti-obesity tool in the school toolbox,” says Matt Sharp, senior advocate for the California Food Policy Advocates. “We are far more focused on increasing participation in breakfast than lunch.”

Another hurdle is stigma. While children on free or reduced-price lunch can often blend into a lunchroom where all students eat, the same cannot be said for kids who arrive early for breakfast. “Some students would rather not eat anything than have people know they are eligible for free and reduced-price meals,” says Juliana Cohen, a doctoral candidate at the Harvard School of Public Health focused on nutrition. But they need to.

In School Breakfast in America’s Big Cities, a January 2011 report released by the Food Research and Action Center, 16 of the 29 urban districts examined in the study “performed above the national average in reaching low-income students with breakfast. But more than half failed to reach a majority of their low-income students with the important morning nourishment they need to succeed in school, and only two districts met FRAC’s goal of reaching at least 70 low-income children with breakfast through the School Breakfast Program for every 100 low-income children who received lunch through the National School Lunch Program.”

As a result, some schools are starting to move breakfast from the cafeteria to the classroom or providing a “grab-and-go” meal for all students, regardless of income.

“It may take up classroom time, but more schools should do it,” says Andrea Giancoli, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. “Nutrition is part of what is going to improve our educational system. If we don’t accept that, were not going to get anywhere.”