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Fewer Poor Students Eat Free Breakfasts in Region

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 19, 2004; Page B03

The number of low-income children eating the most important meal of the day -- breakfast -- at their schools declined last year in the District by nearly 11 percent, and by lesser percentages in Maryland and Virginia, according to a report released yesterday.

The regional declines -- 6 percent in Maryland and 2 percent in Virginia -- came as participation in school breakfast programs nationwide rose by 5.2 percent, said the report by the D.C.-based Food Research and Action Center, a nonprofit organization working for more effective public and private policies to eradicate hunger.

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"The drop in D.C. is disappointing, especially when the national jump in the number of children starting the day off with a nutritious breakfast at school is the best in nine years," said James Weill, president of the center.

Studies have shown that a good breakfast boosts not just student nutrition, but also student achievement and health, and reduces absenteeism and visits to the school nurse. A recent study by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that children with access to school breakfast eat a better overall diet, with less fat and more magnesium, vitamin C and folate. Furthermore, skipping breakfast is associated with a higher risk of obesity among adults.

The federal government funds the School Breakfast Program, which reimburses school systems across the country at a set amount for the cost of each meal for low-income students. However, it has fewer participants than does the federally funded School Lunch Program; the report said four in 10 low-income children who consume school lunches also eat breakfast at school.

Reasons for the regional declines were varied but included a failure to advertise the program well enough, said Kimberly Perry, director of D.C. Hunger Solutions, a project of the Food and Food Research and Action Center.

The District's drop was also seen in part as a result of changing school enrollment patterns, with more students leaving the traditional public schools and entering public charter schools, many of which are not enrolled in the School Breakfast Program. But the drop was not entirely enrollment-related; the study found that for every 100 D.C. children eating a free or reduced-price school lunch, 40.7 ate a school breakfast -- which was lower than the figure of 42 the previous year.

Deborah Gist, director of the D.C. State Education Office, which implements the federally funded nutrition programs in the city, said her staff would work harder with charter schools to get them involved in the program. She also said it was important for students to get to school in time to eat breakfast.

Mark Truax, the new director of the school system's Food and Nutrition Services, said he would research all the barriers to student participation in the next few months and work to eradicate them.

In Virginia, Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) announced yesterday that he was adding $1.5 million to the state's budget to increase the amount of money schools receive in reimbursement for serving breakfast, as part of an overall initiative to improve the health of young people.

Perry said a pilot breakfast program was conducted in eight D.C. schools last year, using a range of methods to make families aware of the program, including trying to lure students in with breakfast readings by celebrities. There was a 50 percent increase in those schools last year at the same time that other schools recorded a drop in participation, she said.

"We have to make sure people know about the program," she said. "If you tell people about the program, you can be sure they will come."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company