The latest U. S. Department of Agriculture’s food security report tells us that 16.7 million children live in families who can’t always afford to feed them enough of the right kinds of foods for a healthy, balanced diet. Many of them–and other children as well–start their school day unready to learn because they’re hungry.
In a recent survey for Share Our Strength, 62% of teachers reported that they regularly see children come to school hungry because they’re not getting enough to eat at home. More than 90% said that hungry students are likely to lack focus and/or energy and to under-perform on tests.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Since 1975, the federal government has subsidized in-school breakfasts. As with lunches, children in families at or below 130% of the federal poverty line can get breakfasts for free. Other low-income children can get them at a maximum cost of 30 cents per meal.
The Food Research and Action Center has been tracking low-income children’s participation in the school breakfast program since 1991. It has consistently found far lower participation rates than in the school lunch program. Its state-by-state report for the 2008-9 school year shows that an average of 10.1 million children a day got a free or reduced-price lunch but not a breakfast.
For the last three years, FRAC has also been reporting on school breakfast participation in America’s biggest cities, including the District of Columbia. It’s just issued its latest scorecard.
So how are we doing? Not as badly as some, but not nearly so well as we should be.
- In 2008-9, 48.4% of D.C. school children who got free or reduced-price lunches also participated in a school breakfast program.
- This was slightly below the median for the 25 big city systems and a whopping 47.3% below the top-ranking system (Newark, New Jersey).
- It was 2.7% lower than the District’s 2007-8 participation rate. Only six other big city systems had decreased rates.
What do we make of this? Well, for one thing, the District lost out on more than $1 million in federal nutrition funds–the additional amount it would have gotten if its breakfast program had served just 70% of low-income students who participated in its lunch program. And more than 4,000 children would have had a better chance to thrive and learn.
As I’ve said before, there seem to be lots of reasons school breakfast participation rates are generally low. The District has already addressed some of them by instituting a universal breakfast program, i.e., free breakfasts for all children, regardless of income.
As a next step, DC Hunger Solutions has recommended programs that reach children who can’t get to school in time to eat a regular cafeteria meal before the school bell rings–“grab and go” packages, in-class meals and/or “second chance” breakfasts after the first period. The new FRAC report indicates that some D.C. schools have such programs. Maybe there should be more.
What else should the District be doing? Why are we failing to tap millions of federal dollars that would help about 17,840 more poor and near-poor children start their school days properly fed?
NOTE: Cross-posted on DC Food for All–a forum of “eaters and advocates, growers and wonks … working to bring healthy, sustainable and affordable food to all.”