Second graders Jaylon Holbrook and Kimberly Perez eat breakfast in their homeroom class at Bancroft Elementary School in Washington, D.C. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

The number of K-12 students receiving free breakfast at school is rising across the country, and the District is seeing the fastest growth, compared to all 50 states.

Between 2009 and 2013, the number of students served free breakfast in the nation’s public schools jumped by about 2 million, according to the Agriculture Department, which oversees the free breakfast program.

Nationally, the number of K-12 students eating free breakfast at school grew by an average of 18.9 percent in the past five years, from 11.1 million in 2009 to 13.2 million in 2013.

But in the District, the rate ballooned by 72 percent over those same years, from 20,431 participating students to 35,038.

Maryland also outpaced the national growth rate in the breakfast program, feeding 154,317 students in 2009 and 211,651 students in 2013, or a 37.2 percent increase. Virginia’s growth rate was below the national average at 16.3 percent; it fed 234,396 students in 2009 and 272,501 in 2013.

Sandra Schlicker, deputy superintendent in the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education, credits the jump in participation with the D.C. Healthy Schools Act of 2010. The law directed public schools to provide free breakfast to students in their elementary school classrooms.

For middle- and high-school students, the law requires breakfast to be provided in alternate forms to a central cafeteria — bagged breakfasts in a kiosk or items offered in a cart in the school lobby, for example.

The idea was to make breakfast as convenient as possible and not require students to have to go to a cafeteria to eat, Schlicker said. Having students eat together in classrooms reduced the stigma attached to free breakfast, she said. “They can sit and eat, everybody together, and listen to announcements at the start of the school day,” she said.

The District also leads the country in the percentage of hungry children. In 2011, New Mexico and the District had the highest rates of children in households without a consistent food supply — about 30 percent, according to Feeding America, a national nonprofit organization. That same year, 20 percent or more of the child population in 36 other states lived in households where they did not get enough to eat, the group said.

Serving breakfast in the classroom is catching on in school districts around the country, said Kevin Concannon, USDA’s undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services. Breakfast in the classroom makes sense, especially for young children, he said. “It doesn’t send the children trundling down the hall to a central location,” he said. “It brings breakfast to them.”

Several other factors have contributed to the nationwide jump in the number of students eating free breakfast at school, Concannon said.

Program officials saw a spike in the years following the 2008 recession, he said. School meals started featuring more fresh fruits and vegetables as a result of the 2010 federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. “The quality of the food is better,” he said.

“The champions of school breakfast are not just the school nutrition directors,” Concannon said. “It’s principals and superintendents. They see the results. They see kids who aren’t falling asleep, who are doing better in classes.”

Still, the increase in number of meals served does not necessarily translate into more meals eaten.

District officials have not been measuring the amount of “plate waste,” i.e., uneaten food tossed into the garbage, said Schlicker. That kind of monitoring is expensive, so school officials have been relying on anecdotal evidence from teachers and administrators, she said. And they’re reporting that waste at breakfast has been decreasing, Schlicker said.