More states making school breakfast a priority to help low-income students achieve

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By Amanda Litvinov / photo by Annelise Cohon/NEA Healthy Futures

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One word explains how schools in Erie, Pennsylvania, improved attendance, behavior, and even academic performance among their students: Breakfast.

It’s a national trend—44 states took steps to provide more low-income students with access to school breakfast in the 2014-15 school year, according to the Food Resource Action Center (FRAC).

Breakfast is a key to preventing poverty from hampering students’ ability to learn. Decades of research shows that kids do better on a full stomach. Students who eat breakfast display improved attention and memory. They also exhibit fewer behavioral problems and are more likely to attend class.

Those benefits are exactly what educators in Erie, Pennsylvania, report among their students, all of whom now have access to a free breakfast every school day.

“Starting the day with breakfast makes all the difference for our kids,” said high school teacher and Erie Education Association President Greg Henderson. “Most of them are poor, and there’s a good chance that breakfast at school is the first meal they’ve had for 12 to 15 hours.”

Starting in the 2014-15 school year, Erie was granted Community Eligibility, a provision of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act that allows schools and local educational agencies with high poverty rates to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students.

Pennsylvania was recognized in FRAC’s latest School Breakfast Scorecard as one of the states that “robustly implemented the Community Eligibility Provision,” and saw significant growth (9.6 percent) in access to school breakfast last year.

Erie Public Schools further expanded students’ access to breakfast by instituting Breakfast in the Classroom in 13 of its 18 schools. The program allows every child in the classroom to have a packaged meal right at their desk in the classroom after the first bell rings.

Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom–comprised of for four leading education, nutrition, and anti-hunger organizations, including NEA Healthy Futures–provided grants to cover start-up costs.

Breakfast in the Classroom removes both the difficulties and the stigma that come with traditional breakfast programs served in the cafeteria. Typically, students must arrive early in order to get breakfast, and they may feel embarrassed to be seen in the cafeteria before school.

“Some educators were hesitant to take on another task, but they’ve come around to supporting Breakfast in the Classroom because they see first-hand all the benefits for students,” said Henderson.

“Aside from helping kids focus, we’ve seen attendance improve and more kids are getting to class on time so they can get something to eat right along with all of their friends,” he said.

Thus far, Breakfast in Classroom has reached 55,000 students nationwide.

This year, Congress is expected to reauthorize the federal child nutrition programs, including school meal programs.

The Senate Agriculture Committee has released its bill, The Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act of 2016, which takes steps to strengthen and expand child nutrition programs, but our advocacy can make the bill even stronger.

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