One of the simplest ways to put poor kids in a position to succeed is to make sure they eat breakfast.
Studies have shown that eating the day's first meal is not only associated with nutritional benefits, but also cognitive ones -- especially for children. A 2013 study, for instance, linked breakfast consumption among children to higher IQs later in life. A group of researchers in 1989 found that students who ate breakfast tended to perform better on standardized tests.
Eating breakfast is especially critical for children from low-income families since they are already disadvantaged in so many other ways. They talk less with their parents. They are fed worse from a very early age. And they are far more likely to be the victim of a crime.
Fortunately, there's a program that tries to make sure low-income children are able to eat breakfast each day: the decades old School Breakfast Program, which helps provide free or near-free morning meals to poor students.
Unfortunately, the program is failing to live up to its potential.
The School Breakfast Program still isn't feeding nearly as many poor students as it should be. In fact, the program is falling short by at least ten million students, if not more, according to a new study by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC).
"The School Breakfast Program remains seriously underutilized," the researchers said rather bluntly.
In order to judge the effectiveness of the breakfast program, FRAC uses two overarching metrics. The first is the number of schools participating in the breakfast program relative to the number of schools participating in a subsidized lunch program. The reasoning is fairly straightforward: Schools that are capable of offering subsidized lunches should, ideally, be offering subsidized breakfasts, too. And largely that's been the case—the share of schools offering breakfast compared to the share offering free lunch is about 90 percent, meaning that nine schools offer breakfast for every ten that offer lunch.
The second metric the organization uses is the number of students who actually use the breakfast program relative to the number who use the lunch program. And it's here where the results are much less encouraging.
For every 100 poor children who participate in the school lunch program, only 53 are enrolled in the breakfast program. In some districts, including ones in California, New Jersey, and Iowa, the ratio is much higher—in the Los Angeles, for instance, more low income students are enrolled in the breakfast program than the lunch program. But those are few and far in between: In the vast majority of school districts the ratio is much lower—only 11 out of the 87 districts surveyed by FRAC achieve the organization's goal enroll 70 students in the breakfast program for every 100 students enrolled in the lunch program.
In other words, there appears to be a fundamental problem with how the breakfast program works. Even though nearly the same number of schools that offer free or subsidized lunch are also offering free or subsidized breakfast, very few students are actually signing up for the latter.
So what's going on? The program, which is funded by the federal government, allows participating public and nonprofit private schools around the country to serve free breakfast to children whose families are near, at, or below the poverty line, and reduced-price meals to children whose families are just above it. But it has done a poor job of accounting for—or, at least adjusting to—obstacles those children encounter.
Most importantly, many students face lengthy commutes, which make it difficult if not impossible for them to arrive early enough to eat breakfast before class.
But shame appears to play a role as well. Enrolling in the breakfast program can be seen as a public acknowledgment that a family can't afford some of the most basic foods. "Social stigma associated with participating in school breakfast serves as another impediment for low-income children," FRAC notes.
Some of the districts that have seen the greatest success with their breakfast programs have made it easier for children by offering "grab and go" meals, which are prepared ahead of time and students can grab on their way to class. Los Angeles and Chicago, where nearly 600 and 450 schools, respectively, have adopted the "grab and go" program, have been particularly exemplary in this way.
A smaller pool of schools, including more than 100 in the District of Columbia, have even taken it a step further by serving breakfast after the first period. A general emphasis on normalizing breakfast eating in the classroom, meanwhile, has also helped certain schools shed the stigma associated with those who eat the meal at school. Thousands of schools, including more than 2,300 in New York City alone, now serve breakfast in the classroom.
But the schools where breakfast has been turned into an essential part of the day are still outliers. Most schools still serve the subsidized meal in the cafeteria before the bell sounds, and only then. And that's proving to be a pretty big problem.