When I was in the fourth grade, we had to make posters about healthy breakfasts. Let me just say that the view of a healthy breakfast was different back then–bacon and eggs and cereal or toast, plus juice and milk.
But the main lesson was that eating a well-rounded breakfast was good for us. That’s still true–and in more ways than they knew when I was a kid.
Far too many children don’t get a nutritious breakfast at home. Parents have to leave the house early to get to work. Children may have long commutes to school. For low-income families there’s an additional barrier–cost.
Since 1975, the federal government has funded an in-school breakfast program to give children a healthy start to their day. All children can participate if there school is part of the program, but there are special provisions for children from low-income families.
Those whose families are at or below 130% of the federal poverty line–thus eligible for food stamps–get their breakfasts free. Those whose families are above this cut-off but not above 185% of the FPL get their breakfasts at a reduced price, not to exceed 30 cents per meal.
According to the Food Research Action Center’s School Breakfast Scorecard, about 86% of schools that serve federally-subsidized lunches also participate in the school breakfast program. Yet in 2007-8, only 45.9% of low-income children who benefited from the free or reduced-price lunch program also got free or reduced-price breakfasts.
What accounts for this participation gap? Part of the answer, of course, is that 14% of schools that serve lunch still don’t offer breakfast.
Cost is probably the major reason. According to the School Nutrition Association, federal reimbursements haven’t kept pace with the rising costs of providing balanced, nutritious meals. So schools lose money on each meal they serve.
For children themselves, there seem to be a number of additional factors:
- They don’t get to school in time to eat breakfast before classes begin.
- There’s a stigma attached to the in-school program because it’s mostly poor children who participate.
- Some families whose children qualify for reduced-cost–but not free–breakfasts can’t afford to pay for them.
- Families have to apply for the program and may be deterred by the paperwork.
- Parents don’t know about the program or understand how important breakfast is.
Child nutrition programs, incuding the school breakfast program, are up for reauthorization this year. So Congress has an immediate opportunity to expand participation in the school breakfast program. FRAC recommends:
- Funding to support more universal breakfast programs–programs that serve free breakfasts for all children, regardless of financial need. These programs not only ensure that every child has a healthy breakfast. They also provide a framework for serving breakfasts in the classroom, thus eliminating commute time and bus schedule problems. And, of course, they eliminate the stigma of participating and all that intimidating paperwork.
- Raising the income eligibility for free school breakfasts to 185% of the federal poverty line. Under this proposal, the reduced-price breakfast category would be eliminated–and, with it, the cost deterrent to low-income families who don’t fall below the current, very low cut-off for free school meals.
- Providing commodities for school breakfasts. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides foods for school lunches, but no extra for breakfasts. Expansion of commodity support would help schools cover the costs of breakfast and free up funds for improving nutritional quality.
- Funding to support outreach activities. Together with other initiatives to increase access, better outreach will bring more children into the program. Schools will then be able to purchase foods in larger quantities–thus reducing cost per meal.
Will all this cost more? Of course it will–if we consider only funding for the school breakfast program. But the immediate and long-term costs of denying children the nutrition they need for health and learning are surely many times greater.