US schools pushing breakfast programs

Cincinatti_The bagged breakfast waiting for Ricky Earl and other students when they arrive at school often includes fruit, cereal, milk and mini doughnuts.

The number of students eating breakfast at Lorain Southview High School near Cleveland has grown from about 150 students to 900 since November, when the school dropped its cafeteria-style breakfasts in favor of delivering bagged meals to classrooms.

"You don't have to worry about missing breakfast because the bus was late or you couldn't get through the cafeteria line in time for class," Earl, 17, said.

School districts around the U.S. have been trying new ways to get more students to use the federally reimbursed school breakfast program, especially as more children become eligible for free and reduced-priced meals amid the U.S. recession.

Schools in Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida are handing out bagged meals in or out of classrooms, offering breakfasts free to all students - not just those from low-income families - and providing iPods and other incentives to get students to use the breakfast programs.

Nationally, about 8.5 million children participated in school breakfast programs on an average day in the 2007-2008 academic year, according to the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center in Washington, D.C.

While that was an increase of 327,000, or 4 percent, from the previous year, the program remained less popular than the national school lunch program that reached 18.4 million children.

"The dramatic changes in the economy make it even more important for schools to try to break down any barriers preventing qualifying children from participating," said Rachel Cooper, a senior policy analyst with the center.

School nutrition advocates say research shows breakfast is vital to children's health and academic success, and greater participation in the free and reduced-price breakfast program also can help schools financially by increasing reimbursements.

Participation is often low because of concerns by children that they might be viewed as "poor," transportation problems that prevent students from getting to school in time for before-school breakfasts and parents' lack of knowledge about the program, nutritionists say.

Offering free breakfasts to all students, especially in a classroom setting, helps eliminate any perceived stigma, said Susan Bartosch, spokeswoman for the Lorain City Schools in Ohio

"Students don't feel like they stand out," Bartosch said.

High schools and elementary schools that offer classroom meals have experienced fewer tardiness and discipline problems and increased student alertness, Bartosch said.

Cincinnati Public Schools still offer breakfast before school in cafeterias, but the district is using a grant from the Columbus-based Children's Hunger Alliance to draw more students at the highschool level. The district holds raffles giving students the chance to win gift cards for restaurants, music downloads and even an iPod.

In Milwaukee Public Schools, where about 77 percent of the district's 85,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price breakfasts, officials are trying to boost participation by offering classroom breakfasts that are free to all students at 75 of its 125 elementary schools.

"Students like the community feeling of eating in the classroom, and if they have to go to a cafeteria before school to eat, many don't," said Kymm Mutch, Milwaukee's school nutrition services director.

Participation among all Milwaukee students increased from 11 percent when the classroom breakfasts began in 2006-2007 to about 33 percent this year.

The district also has started offering breakfast foods in vending machines for middle school and high school students.

The Hillsborough County Public Schools district in Tampa, Fla., with 188,000 students, has offered free breakfasts to all students for about five years and has seen participation grow at the high school level from 7 percent to 29 percent in that time.

Elementary school children get breakfast in cafeterias before school, while older students can get bagged breakfast at bus loops outside some schools to eat on the way to class, said Mary Kate Harrison, general manager for student nutrition.


School Nutrition Association:

Food Research and Action Center:

Lisa Cornwell, AP Writer © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.