Report: How to boost breakfast program participation

Report: How to boost breakfast program participation

(Utah) Providing breakfast for students with long bus rides, offering quick grab-and-go meals, or even serving food after the bell rings can effectively increase participation in school breakfast programs–something that can boost outcomes for low-income youth, advocates say.

According to a new report from Utahns Against Hunger, a non-profit advocacy organization that aims to decrease the number of children who go hungry in the state, low participation rates stem from the fact that breakfast is served before school starts. Low-income students most in need of free- or reduced price meals miss out if they arrive just as school starts or if they want to avoid the stigma of eating meals reserved for poor students served in the cafeteria.

The report notes that Utah has ranked last in the country for school breakfast participation for the past seven years, with about 39 percent of all low-income students who qualify for free or reduced meals taking part during the 2016-17 school year.

“In Utah, the majority of schools offer breakfast, but serve it in the cafeteria before the school day starts,” according to the group’s latest report. “This creates several barriers that can result in low participation. For example, kids are required to arrive at school early in order to participate, but busy morning schedules at home, as well as school bus schedules may prevent them from arriving in time to eat.”

Eating breakfast at school is associated with reduced tardiness and absenteeism, stronger academic performance, improved health and a reduced risk of developing an eating disorder, depression and anxiety.

According to the Food and Research Action Center, hungry students who are eligible for free- or reduced price school meals may still skip breakfast if it’s inconvenient or makes them feel as if they are being singled out for having less than their peers.

In an effort to alleviate such problems, six states have passed legislation requiring breakfast be served after the bell in schools that already have a large percentage of students from low-income homes, according to No Kid Hungry.

Most Utah schools schedule breakfast before classes start, the Utahns Against Hunger report found, but some schools have successfully increased participation simply by adjusting the time meals are served.

In Stansbury Elementary School, for instance, more than 84 percent of children were eligible for free- or reduced-price meals during the 2013-14 school year, but only about 22 percent were eating breakfast at school.

Once the district participated in a pilot program to move breakfast to after the bell, more than 91 percent of children were participating by the end of the 2014-15 school year. And teachers reported that the 15 minutes of teaching time cut to manage the program was offset by gaining back about 45 minutes of cognitive time because students were able to focus on their lessons instead of being hungry.

Advocates at Utahns Against Hunger wrote that in addition to serving breakfast in the classroom after the first bell rings–something they say works best in elementary schools where students stay in the same classroom all day–schools can implement a handful of other strategies.

Other breakfast models include offering:

  • Grab-and-go breakfasts that are conveniently packaged so students can quickly grab a meal from a line or a cart and eat in class or elsewhere on campus;
  • Breakfast on the bus for students as they board so that those with bus rides lasting more than an hour can eat during the trip;
  • Second chance breakfasts for high school students where they can get a quick breakfast in between first and second period; and
  • Breakfast vending, through which students can purchase healthy breakfast foods from a vending machine on campus using the school’s point-of-sale system, such as with their student ID.