Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Educators believe this. That’s because they’ve seen, all too often, children making easy mistakes, acting tired or cranky, or heading to the nurse’s office because their stomachs are empty and aching.

Board of Education Vice President Christopher S. Barclay joins two students at New Hampshire Estates Elementary School for breakfast (Montgomery County Public Schools)

Less than half of the nearly 230,000 students in Maryland who took advantage of free or reduced-price lunches during the 2009-2010 school year came early for a free breakfast, even though they were eligible.

That’s why a team of local, state and school officials in business suits visited New Hampshire Estates Elementary School in Silver Spring Thursday morning to sip low-fat milk and nibble breakfast sandwiches and encourage more students to do the same.

“A hungry student can’t learn and that is why it is so important that all of our students have the opportunity to start their day with a nutritious meal,” said Superintendent Joshua Starr.

There are several barriers to higher participation, experts say, including hectic morning schedules, transportation, and the stigma of poverty.

New Hampshire Estates is one of 32 high-poverty schools in Montgomery that offers a universal breakfast program, so that every student regardless of family income can get a free breakfast. This approach tends to drive up participation.

For the past 15 years, Maryland has tried to encourage participation through these universal programs, as well as some different approaches, such grab-and-go meals, breakfast in the classroom instead of the cafeteria, and offering breakfast later in the morning.

“We’re trying to get schools to think more creatively about how they offer meals,” said Anne Sheridan, co-chair of the Governor’s Partnership to End Childhood Hunger in Maryland. “We talk about it terms of hunger, but it’s really linked to academic performance.”

This year only 228 of the 780 eligible schools in Maryland are actually participating, though, because of budget limitations.

More than 45,000 students in Montgomery County schools qualify for free or reduced-price meals. As of the end of January, district schools had served more than 2.1 million breakfasts.