Editorial: Better access to school breakfasts benefits students

By The Herald Editorial Board

Mom was right, of course: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

And whether Mom knew it or not, plenty of studies over the years back her up on the importance of breakfast to success in school.

A review of research in the journal Frontiers of Human Neuroscience from 2013 found that breakfast had a positive effect on children’s performance in school, particularly in the areas of memory and attention, and was especially so for children who are chronically undernourished.

Decades of other studies have concluded that children who eat breakfast reach higher levels of achievement in reading and math, concentrate better, are more alert, retain more of what they learn and have increased participation in class, reports the No Kid Hungry Center for Best Practices, a children’s nutrition advocacy organization.

At the same time, studies of school breakfast programs have shown reduced absenteeism and tardiness, fewer behavioral problems and nurse’s office visits, better scores on standardized tests, higher grades and a better learning environment for all students.

And more and more kids and schools can count on seeing those benefits as the number of children who eat breakfast at school grows and access to breakfast on a free or reduced-cost basis increases.

According to the latest School Breakfast Scorecard, an annual report by the Food Research and Action Center, school breakfast participation among children from low-income families grew 3.7 percent for the 2015-16 school year over the previous school year. About 12.1 million low-income kids eat breakfast at school, a 50 percent increase since the 2006-07 school year. Even with that growth, however, the number of kids benefiting from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Breakfast Program is a fraction of the 21.6 million of low-income students who benefit from the National School Lunch Program.

The growth in the breakfast program, which started as a pilot program in the 1960s, has been credited to an expansion during the Obama administration of the Community Eligibility Provision, the Washington Post reported last week. Under that program, breakfast and lunch is offered free to all students when 40 percent of the school body qualifies for food stamps or other nutrition assistance programs based on family income. The program reduces paperwork for schools and families and eliminates the stigma that keeps some from participating.

Republicans in the U.S. House, objecting to extension of free meals to families who ordinarily wouldn’t qualify, attempted to raise the threshold for schools to qualify but were not successful last year. But a Republican-controlled Congress now is less likely to be blocked by a presidential veto.

There’s an opportunity here for recently confirmed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to demonstrate her support for all school children — regardless of whether they attend public or private schools — and to back a program that has proven benefits. DeVos should make her case to President Trump to sustain the School Breakfast Program and the Community Eligibility Provision.

As well, Washington state’s lawmakers, as they consider increased funding to K-12 schools and what programs will result in better educational outcomes, can do more to increase participation in school breakfast.

The Food Research and Action Center’s scorecard showed that Washington state ranked seventh from the bottom among the 50 states in the ratio of children who receive a free or reduced-price breakfast to those getting lunch. For every 100 kids getting a free or reduced lunch, only 45 were eating breakfast at school. West Virginia topped the scorecard with nearly 84 at breakfast for every 100 at lunch.

Greater participation in the federal school-wide free breakfast program could help, but the research center also pointed to programs in other states that increase access by offering breakfast “after the bell,” rather than only before school, catching children who don’t arrive in time to eat before classes begin.

Four states — Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and West Virginia, as well as the District of Columbia — recently have passed laws that require school districts to offer breakfast after the bell, either serving breakfast in the classroom at the start of the day or between first and second periods.

For the cost of a school breakfast we can make sure that all kids are ready to learn.

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