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School Breakfast: Crucial to Kids' Health and Readiness to Learn

March 04, 2019
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Increasing access with the support of public-private partnerships

by Ann Marie Krautheim, MA, RD, LD

As a Registered Dietitian; President of a national youth-wellness nonprofit; and the mom of two active sons . . . the subject of school breakfast is near to my heart.  Let me take this opportunity to explain – and to share why I’m so proud of what the organization I help lead is doing to support it.

The beneficial effects of breakfast on a child’s performance are well documented, and research shows the indisputable upside of kids eating breakfast daily.  Studies indicate that children, especially nutritionally at-risk children, who eat breakfast have higher math and verbal fluency scores, and perform better on standardized tests.  Breakfast-eaters pay more attention, behave better in class, and are less likely to be absent, late, or see the school nurse.

But data show that as many as 19% of American children skip breakfast, and, according to research published in Preventive Medicine, more than half of teenagers don’t eat breakfast daily.

school breakfast

So why do kids miss breakfast?

The tyranny of time constraints, limited family income, and the lack of appetite early in the morning are among the reasons.  But in so many cases, it’s strictly economic.  One out of six children, or more than 12 million Americans under 18, live in food-insecure households in which family funds are insufficient to buy adequate food during at least some periods.  For students from such families, school meal programs can be a lifeline, and may be the only nutritious and adequate meals they get on some days.

Enter the School Breakfast Program (SBP) -- an important solution that provides a healthy morning meal, providing fruit (or vegetable), whole grain-rich foods, and 1% or nonfat milk to millions of students across the country.  Our nation’s School Breakfast Program operates in more than 88,000 schools, as well as nearly 3,000 child-care institutions.  In the 2017-18 school year, the program served breakfast to 14.7 million children, 85% of whom qualified for free or reduced-price breakfast. 

Happily, providing low-income middle school students with free school breakfast is shown to increase their overall nutrition intake, which is positively associated with increased math grades.  The School Breakfast Program has also been associated with improved attendance and decreased tardiness

Meanwhile, the FRAC (Food Research and Action Council) School Breakfast Scorecard, an authoritative annual report, analyzes participation in the School Breakfast Program among low-income children, and features best practices for increasing participation in the program. The recent report, reflecting data from the 2017-18 school year, recognizes that programs that move breakfast out of the cafeteria, along with community eligibility, as the most successful strategies for increasing school breakfast participation in helping to overcome hurdles in accessing school breakfast such as timing, convenience and stigma.

Alternative breakfast models, such as Grab-‘n’-Go breakfast, represent possibly the easiest, most cost effective and most directly helpful step schools can take to improve school and student wellness.

At GENYOUth, we recognized the effectiveness of Grab ‘n’ Go breakfast in increasing access to school breakfast among all students.  And I am especially proud of partnerships that we have created to purchase and place grab-n-go carts in hundreds of high-need schools, with the support of key partners, including the PepsiCo Foundation.

PepsiCo’s Ready, Step, Move… Give! initiative is an employee wellness program in which, during 2017 and 2018, PepsiCo employees took over 9  billion steps, which were converted to dollars donated to GENYOUth’s in-school wellness program Fuel Up to Play 60, to purchase and place Grab ‘n’ Go breakfast carts, increasing access to 5 million school breakfast meals among 30,000 students. 

This coming year, with an additional investment of employee engagement, the PepsiCo Foundation will allow us to scale this proven turnkey solution in a total of 100 schools in at-risk communities, reaching 55,000 students, and providing increased access to 10 million healthy meals. 

I recently participated in our “unveiling” of a Grab ‘n’ Go cart, funded by Georgia Power, at a middle school just outside Atlanta where 97% of the student population are eligible for free/reduced priced meals. The cafeteria was built to seat just 300, yet the school now serves over 1,000 students. The Grab ‘n’ Go cart is a game changer, enabling all students to have access to a healthy meal while en route from the bus to the classroom.

The FRAC report mentioned above clearly reinforces why we must double down on our efforts to enable continued growth in participation, ensuring that a healthy morning meal is accessible to those who need it most.

I encourage individuals, companies, and organizations to make a real difference in children’s health by channeling resources to increase awareness of and access to school breakfast.  Consider introducing, expanding, or enhancing breakfast programs in your community or district.   All children deserve a healthy morning meal that fosters good health and academic achievement. And promoting and providing increased access to school breakfast is a proven solution.

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Ann Marie Krautheim, MA, RD, a nutrition expert, food & fitness fanatic, and mom of two, is President and Chief Wellness Officer of GENYOUth, the national youth-wellness nonprofit that was founded through a collaboration between the National Football League and National Dairy Council. GENYOUth’s flagship program is Fuel Up to Play 60, one of the largest in-school nutrition and physical-activity programs in the nation, reaching 73,000 schools that enroll 38 million students.

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