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Low Rate of Participation in School Breakfast Means Missed Meals for Children and Missed Federal Dollars for Washington, D.C.
Recession Increasing the Number of Children Eligible for Program, But Participation Rates Not Reflecting Increased Need
Washington, D.C - December 8, 2009 - During the 2008-2009 school year, 15,876 low-income children in Washington, D.C. participated in the national School Breakfast Program, according to the School Breakfast Scorecard (pdf). This was a slight decrease from the previous school year. The Scorecard is issued annually by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) to measure national and state trends in school breakfast.
The FRAC report measures the reach of the School Breakfast Program by comparing the number of low-income children receiving school breakfast to the number of such children receiving school lunch. Washington, D.C. served only 47 low-income children breakfast for every 100 that received lunch, a participation rate that was only slightly better than the national rate for states and a drop from the previous school year when 50 percent of children who ate lunch also ate breakfast. Nationally, 46.7 low-income children participated in school breakfast for every 100 that received lunch.
"As more families faced lost jobs and wages, we should be seeing a huge increase in the number of children using the School Breakfast Program," said Alexandra Ashbrook, director of D.C. Hunger Solutions. Ashbrook noted that the FRAC report shows a decrease in the number of low-income children starting the day with school breakfast, but an increase in the number of low-income children eating school lunch. "The fact that more low-income children are eating lunch shows that there is an increased need for school nutrition programs. For school breakfast participation to increase, schools in the District must prioritize school breakfast and get creative about how they promote and serve it," said Ashbrook.
Also concerning was the decrease in the number of schools offering breakfast that also offered lunch. While all D.C Public Schools offer universal (free to all) breakfast, not all charter schools operate breakfast programs. According to the report, only 195 D.C. schools (both public and charter) out of 215 operated the School Breakfast Program during the 2008-2009 school year; in the previous school year, 209 out of 221 schools operated the program.
According to D.C. Hunger Solutions, which conducted a separate analysis, if participation in D.C. rose to 70 low-income children eating federally-funded school breakfast for every 100 low-income children eating lunch, more than 7,700 low-income children would start the day with a healthy breakfast and the state would gain an additional $1.78 million in federal funding.
"This is eminently achievable goal and D.C. Public Schools have taken the first step with universal free breakfast but all schools must offer free breakfast and implement models like breakfast in the classroom," Ashbrook emphasized. "This goal is reachable even in difficult budget times, since nearly 100 percent of breakfast costs for low-income children are paid by the federal government."
For solutions, Ashbrook pointed to a separate FRAC analysis, School Breakfast in America's Big Cities (pdf).This report, released in conjunction with the Scorecard, looked at school breakfast participation and trends in 25 large urban districts, and found that higher rates of breakfast participation were achieved by school districts that offered breakfast free to all students (also known as universal breakfast), served breakfast in the classroom at the start of the school day rather than in the cafeteria, or offered bagged "grab and go" breakfasts from carts in the hallway.
- San Diego and Baltimore City saw dramatic increases in participation after implementing large-scale classroom breakfast programs. San Diego boosted participation by an impressive 40.3 percent, and Baltimore City experienced a 29.5 percent increase.
- The three top performing school districts - Newark (N.J.), Columbus (Ohio), and Boston (Mass.) - all operated programs that served breakfast in the classroom at no charge to the students in many or all schools.
"Classroom breakfast works. All the top performing school districts in this report have extensive classroom breakfast programs, and we can see that it leads to higher participation," said Ashbrook. "It's never too late in the school year to start thinking about creative ways to improve participation in school breakfast."
Nationally, we've seen a real increase in breakfast participation among low-income children both because of the recession and because most states generally have slowly been increasing breakfast use, but participation is just not growing fast enough," said Jim Weill, FRAC president. "States can do a better job in reaching more children, and also Congress needs to take steps to make it easier for schools and children to reap the benefits of school breakfast."
In its national report, FRAC outlined a series of recommendations for the upcoming Congressional reauthorization of the child nutrition programs, including:
- Creating a grant program to support the start-up and expansion of universal and in-classroom school breakfast programs, especially in schools with high proportions of low-income children;
- Expanding universal school meal programs (offered free for all children) by reducing or eliminating paper applications, using alternative methods for determining eligibility, and thereby reaching more children while reducing administrative costs for school districts that serve a high percentage of low-income children;
- Raising the income eligibility cut-off for free meals to 185 percent of poverty, and eliminating the reduced-price copayment for near-poor families that is deterring participation; and
- Providing USDA commodities to schools for breakfast meals.
D.C. Hunger Solutions joined FRAC in calling for Congress to make needed and long-overdue improvements to the school meal programs. All of the child nutrition programs, including the School Breakfast Program, are set to be reauthorized early next year as part of Child Nutrition Reauthorization.
"Congress needs to make it easier for D.C.'s children to participate in the school breakfast program and to support schools that want to expand participation. President Obama made it a goal to end childhood hunger by 2015, and expanding the reach of the School Breakfast Program is a critical part of achieving that goal," said Ashbrook.
About the report: The full report, School Breakfast Scorecard, is available at www.frac.org/pdf/breakfast09.pdf. To measure the reach of the School Breakfast Program, FRAC compares the number of schools and low-income children that participate in breakfast to those that participate in the National School Lunch Program. FRAC also sets a participation goal of reaching 60 children with breakfast for every 100 receiving lunch as a way to gauge state progress and the costs of underparticipation in the program. Nationally, the School Breakfast Program has grown to include 8.8 million low-income children.