A new report ranks Utah last in the nation when it comes to the first meal of the day showing that only about one-third of low-income Utah kids who eat lunch at school also get breakfast there.
It's a statistic that has some wondering how many Utah students are spending their mornings hungry at school.
Last school year, 33.9 percent of Utah students who received federal free or reduced-price lunches at school also received breakfast under the federal School Breakfast Program, according to a new report from the Food Research and Action Center, a nonprofit organization aimed at eradicating hunger in the United States. To qualify for free and reduced-price meals, students must come from low-income families.
Last school year, 177,246 Utah low-income students got lunch at school, compared with 60,039 who got breakfast, according to the report.
Gina Cornia, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger, said school funding is always a hot topic during Utah legislative sessions, but funding doesn't mean much if kids arrive at school each day with empty bellies.
"Unless every child starts the day ready to learn because they are well-nourished, it doesn't matter how much money we put into education," Cornia said. "If one in three of the kids in your class are hungry, then how are those kids going to learn?"
Luann Elliott, director of Child Nutrition Programs at the State Office of Education, said Utah's percentages may be lower than other states for a number of reasons. Some states, for example, mandate all schools serve breakfast, unlike in Utah. Also, she said, the logistics can be difficult for some schools. Some Utah communities, she said, may simply feel strongly that breakfast is a family responsibility.
But she said Utah schools are serving more students breakfast as time goes on and finding creative ways to do it. The number of low-income Utah kids receiving breakfast last school year jumped by more than 3 percent from the year before, though the proportion of low-income kids eating lunch and breakfast at school remained the same as Utah's school enrollment grew.
Last school year, 795 Utah schools offered breakfast, compared with 753 the year before, according to the report. Utah ranked 36th in the nation for the percentage of National School Lunch Program schools also offering breakfast, 86.6 percent.
The report also estimates that Utah could claim another $15.5 million in federal meal reimbursement if it could bring the percentage of free and reduced-price lunch students who also ate breakfast up to 70 percent.
Elliott said some schools are working to get more kids to breakfast by offering it in the classroom or during the school day.
"It has a tremendous impact on their ability to learn, to be attentive and to participate in their education," Elliott said.
In Ogden, for example, one school serves breakfast in classrooms, said Kristine Scott, a registered dietician with the Ogden district. That school started dishing out breakfast in the classroom about two years ago after finding it difficult to serve large numbers of kids, waiting in lines, in just 15 or 20 minutes, she said.
All of Ogden's schools offer breakfast every day. Most started serving breakfast more than 20 years ago, she said. The district served more than 700,000 breakfasts last school year.
"We just realized that if you're hungry, you're not going to learn," Scott said. "It's important for kids to eat breakfast and come to the school ready to start the day."
By the numbers
177,246 • Utah low-income students got lunch at school
60,039 • Utah low-income kids got breakfast at school
795 • Or 86.6 percent of Utah's schools offer breakfast, but many struggle to get kids involved