As the start of the school year approaches, Utahns Against Hunger has seen an upswing in the number of organizations promoting donations of school supplies. Organizations such as the United Way, the International Rescue Committee and individual school districts are reaching out to the community to make sure that kids are ready to start the school year off right.
But kids need more than just supplies to be prepared for school. Students also need access to quality nutrition and, on that front. Utah’s students are dramatically unprepared. According to the Food Research & Action Center’s School Breakfast Scorecard, 65,572 Utah students received free and reduced-price school breakfast in the 2017–2018 school year. Just 39.4 students received breakfast for every 100 who received school lunch, placing Utah last among all 50 states and the District of Columbia in the number of low-income students benefiting from the School Breakfast Program.
Students who start the day with breakfast do better on standardized tests, have fewer behavioral problems in the classroom and miss fewer days of school. When students skip breakfast, even if they are otherwise well-fed, they are more likely to make errors and have trouble recalling details.
For students who live in food insecure households, the negative effects of missing breakfast are more pronounced. Over time, undernourished students will see lower grades and standardized test scores and are less likely to succeed in school. The cognitive effects of food insecurity also can translate into disciplinary incidents and mental health issues.
Some schools are tackling the problem by adopting “Breakfast after the Bell,” an alternative to the traditional model of serving breakfast in the cafeteria before the school day begins. Breakfast after the bell service models can be tailored to the needs of specific schools, through “Grab and Go” kiosks in high-traffic areas such as hallways or courtyards, or by offering breakfast in the classroom after the school day starts.
Shifting to these alternative service models increases school breakfast participation, and as a result improves health and learning. Not only that, but eating healthy breakfasts at school exposes children to a wider variety of foods and a consistent range of essential nutrients. Expanding access to school breakfast also helps reduce absenteeism, according to a recent report from Future-Ed.
We want our students to have all the tools they need to succeed. Sometimes this can mean whiteboards or calculators, but it can also mean nutritious school breakfast. As parents prepare for the start of the new school year, they also can support their classrooms by engaging with their principals, teachers, and community councils.
Community voices matter, and by speaking up to ensure that our students are well nourished at school, we can continue to cultivate strong communities. Expanding access to school breakfast for all children is an investment in the future of our students.
Neil Rickard is the child nutrition advocate at Utahns Against Hunger.