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School Breakfasts Now Served as Widely as Lunches

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Maybe the message about the most important meal of the day has finally sunk in: In many school districts, more than 90 percent of schools that serve lunch through the National School Lunch Program now serve breakfast at school, too, new data from the Food Research and Action Center show.

In addition, the report out this week, which looked at how school breakfast programs are operating in 57 large urban and suburban school districts in the 2011-12 school year, found that more than half of all low-income students who ate lunch prepared at school also ate school breakfast.

FRAC measures breakfast participation by comparing the number of low-income children receiving school breakfast to the number of such children receiving school lunch. Participation ranged from 70.2 low-income students eating breakfast for every 100 eating in lunch in New Mexico to 33.9 per 100 in Utah. Five states—Kentucky, New Mexico, South Carolina, Vermont, and West Virginia—and the District of Columbia reached more than 60 students per 100.

Since FRAC launched its national school breakfast campaign in 1988, the share of schools participating has grown from less than 50 percent to more than 90 percent, and the number of children has grown from 31 percent to 50 percent. In districts where breakfast is free for all or most students, FRAC found that the growth in the percentage of students eating breakfast at school compared to the year prior was highest.

Part of the uptick in the participation in school breakfast may be because more school districts are serving breakfast to students in the classroom, rather than asking students to arrive early and eat in school cafeterias. The report found that school districts with the greatest rates of participation all offer breakfast free to all or many students throughout their district, and all have breakfast in the classroom programs in at least a third of their schools.

Chicago schools added breakfast in the classroom in recent years, for example. But the program does have its critics. Teachers and school administrators have complained about the mess and that the meals cut into instructional time. But a bigger concern is that some students, even in districts where a large percentage of students are from low-income families, will end up overeating because they have already eaten breakfast at home.

Another way schools have made breakfast more convenient is with a "grab 'n' go" option: prepackaged meals that can be served very quickly.

Districts where participation was below 70 percent of students who are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches that didn't serve the same percentage of students breakfasts missed out on millions in federal funding for child nutrition programs, to the tune of about $50 million in New York City and $14 million in the Miami-Dade school system.

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