Making sure schoolchildren don’t start the day on an empty stomach won’t guarantee they eventually graduate from high school and attend college. But kids who don’t eat breakfast at home — and, worse, didn’t have much to eat the night before — have one strike against them even before they begin learning to read and do arithmetic.
But it’s something Utah education officials can, and should, do something about.
A new report says eating breakfast regularly increases a child’s ability to learn and her overall health. That report, from the Washington, D.C.-based Food Research and Action Center, ranked Utah last in the country in providing breakfast at school to children from low-income families during the 2012-2013 school year.
That ranking translates to about 73,000 students who qualify for but don’t get breakfast at school. And it’s not as if the number of Utah youngsters in need is insignificant.
Fully a quarter of Utah children live in households that qualify as “food insecure,” according to Utahns Against Hunger. More than 140,000 Utah children under age 18, or 16 percent, lived below the federal poverty level in 2011, and the number hit 18 percent in Salt Lake city.
About 36 percent of students in Utah schools qualify for free or reduced lunch based on family income. School breakfast and lunch are funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the Child Nutrition Act of 1966.
School districts, rather than the State Office of Education, make decisions about how to use those federal funds. Considering the data in this report, districts should be doing a better job of making breakfast available to more at-risk children.
Most districts that provide the morning meal do so only in the cafeteria before school, and that can make it difficult for parents to get their children to school early enough to eat before the school bell rings for class. Low-income parents often work multiple jobs and have varying schedules, and districts should take that into account.
Districts in other states allow children to eat school breakfast during class or following first period or provide foods that students can carry in their hands. Utah districts should get creative and not continue offering the program only in a way that excludes many needy children.
Districts should also develop outreach programs to educate parents about the availability and value of school breakfast. It’s another way to improve young children’s chances for long-term academic success.