Low-income Utah children rank last in the U.S. for taking free school breakfasts. Here’s how officials hope to change that.

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Tatiana Lopez, right, helps her friend Crystal make choices as they go through lines in the cafeteria at Backman Elementary SchoolÕs Breakfast in the Classroom program, Wednesday, March 21, 2018.

Backman Elementary School in Salt Lake City is unusually quiet most mornings, save for the crinkling sound of cellophane being ripped off each student’s free breakfast.

Students at Backman get the meal as part of a growing initiative to boost participation in school breakfast programs across Utah. For seven years, the state has ranked last in the country for school breakfast participation, with about 39 percent of all low-income students who qualify for free or reduced meals taking part.

By Marti Woolford’s estimations, Utah schools are leaving untouched more than $13 million in allocated federal funding for subsidized meals. Her nonprofit Utahns Against Hunger hopes to raise the state’s participation rate to 70 percent, a difference of about 45,000 children.

Studies show that children who eat breakfasts in the morning have better test scores. But providing that meal for low-income kids can be a logistical hurdle, Woolford said.

Most Utah schools still cling to a scheduling model that has qualified children arriving early to collect their meal. Woolford feels that strategy is problematic for low-income students, who might struggle to get to school on time or feel a stigma if their friends are off playing while they eat alone.

Ideally, she said, schools should serve breakfast after the bell has rung, either in class or all together in the cafeteria. States that rank highest for participation in school breakfast programs often require that meals be served during school hours.

“A restaurant doesn’t serve breakfast before they open,” Woolford said. “If you have kids eat when the school is actually open, it just works better.”

Utahns Against Hunger, in cooperation with the Utah Breakfast Expansion Team, also released a study Wednesday with three years of Utah data on school breakfast programs, along with details on several models deemed effective for encouraging families to participate — including breakfast on the bus, breakfast after first period or breakfast in the classroom.

Utah Breakfast Expansion Team’s recommended breakfast models:

  • Breakfast in the Classroom – School nutrition staff or select students deliver meals in the classroom. This strategy works best for elementary schools, where students stay in the same class throughout the day. 

  • Grab and Go – Breakfasts are conveniently packaged so students can grab a meal quickly from a line or a cart and eat elsewhere on campus.

  • Breakfast Vending – Students might purchase breakfasts using the school’s point-of-sale system, such as with their student ID.

  • Second Chance Breakfast – Students have time after their first period class to get breakfast, which they can eat in the classroom or hall.

  • Breakfast on the Bus – Some students have bus rides lasting more than an hour. With this method, students are served as they board, then eat during the trip.

The challenge, Woolford said, is finding which model works best for each school.

In Salt Lake City School District, Backman Principal Heather Newell uses the “grab and go” method. Kids line up upon arrival, swing through the cafeteria on the way to class and grab one milk box, one fruit item and one entree — on Wednesday it was a Pillsbury bagel stuffed with strawberry cream cheese.

In room 217, fourth-graders including Patience Campbell fell silent, too busy digging into an applesauce cup to chat with peers.

“We do get hungry before lunch, but just like two minutes before,” the 10-year-old said.

Newell said serving breakfast has had a soothing effect on the students.

“Our mornings start a lot more calmly,” she said. “Our office referrals before breakfast are almost down to zero.”

And though school breakfast sometimes presents difficulties for parents, Newell said, “I think it’s important that we serve kids.”