Report: Eligible Students Missing Free Breakfasts

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New York City ranks last in a list of 26 urban school districts when it comes to getting qualified children to participate in the free school breakfast program, according to the Food Research and Action Center, a national nonprofit anti-hunger advocacy group.

The center's report, which analyzed data for the 2010-2011 school year, shows that fewer than 40 percent of New York City students who qualify for free or reduced lunch are also eating a free breakfast at school.

The Department of Education says about 74 percent of the city's 1.1 million school children qualify for the lunch program.

Nationally, about 48 percent of students who qualify for a free or reduced lunch are eating a free breakfast at school, according to the report. The Food Research and Action Center says an achievable goal in large, urban districts would be reaching at least 70 percent of those students.

One of the city's main barriers to serving more breakfasts may be that most schools serve breakfast before the day begins, said Madeleine Levin, senior policy analyst at the center.

"Many kids leave home without having eaten and then arrive at school too late to be able to take advantage of the program," she said.

Ms. Levin said school districts like Newark Public Schools have been able to increase participation in the breakfast program by serving the meal in classrooms.

Newark, which has a student population of fewer than 40,000, topped the study's ranking by reaching 87 percent of its low-income students with the school breakfast program last school year. The district requires that nearly all kindergarten through eighth grade schools serve breakfast in the classroom.

A Department of Education spokeswoman said it is left up to school principals to decide where to serve the morning meal, and about 300 of the system's 1,700 schools now offer breakfast in the classroom.

City officials also say comparing districts is not fair because the city's school system is much bigger and more complex than any of its counterparts.

A typical classroom breakfast in New York City may include seasonal fresh fruit, whole grain apple loaf and a wedge of Colby Jack cheese. In the cafeteria, students may eat a bagel and cream cheese and a yogurt, according to the Education Department.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture notes that students who eat a healthy breakfast are more attentive, have better memory recall and perform better on standardized tests than those who do not eat a healthy breakfast.

Increased participation in the school breakfast program also means increased federal financing to schools to help them serve those meals. The government reimburses schools about $1.50 for each breakfast served to children who are enrolled in the meal program.

New York City makes breakfast available to all students regardless of income. The Food Research and Action Center report shows that offering all children breakfast at no charge helps reduce any stigma associated with a free meal program.

However, city health officials have also noted that a universal breakfast program could encourage some students to eat two breakfasts -- one before school and one in the classroom. Researchers from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene looked at in-class breakfast programs for elementary school students in high-needs neighborhoods in New York City in 2010. Their evaluation showed that 21 percent of children were possibly eating two breakfasts.

Health officials concluded that there should be continued efforts to make sure all children eat a healthy breakfast, while taking special care to ensure that children are not inadvertently taking in too many calories.