Shifting student breakfasts from the cafeteria to the classroom produces a significant gain in vulnerable children’s readiness to learn, according to a new survey by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). Breakfast in the Classroom programs reduced student hunger in 61 percent of school surveyed and improved student attentiveness, attendance, and test scores.
FRAC surveyed 276 school principals in 15 districts to see how shifting to Breakfast in the Classroom had worked out for their schools. Principals reported higher participation in breakfast in 85 percent of schools, fewer tardy students in 40 percent of schools, and improved attentiveness in a third. Absenteeism fell in 13 percent of schools surveyed, and standardized test scores rose in 13 percent of schools.
The idea behind the Breakfast in the Classroom program is simple. Students perform better when they are not distracted by hunger, and programs that provide free breakfast are more effective when the meal is incorporated into the school day rather than being offered before school in the cafeteria, which stigmatizes participants as poor in the eyes of their peers. As of February, free school breakfast programs were only reaching half of the students who are eligible for them.
Breakfast in the Classroom helps to close that gap, improving the efficacy of the programs. It “prevents students from missing breakfast when they don’t arrive at school early” and from having to “choose between socializing with friends and eating breakfast,” FRAC notes. In districts with high proportions of low-income students, Breakfast in the Classroom programs can be extended to the entire student body for no charge. Public schools in Dallas extended free lunch and breakfast programs to all students regardless of income in October, and the Boston public school system made the same choice in September.
Three out of four teachers routinely see kids showing up to class hungry, according to a survey from the summer. The link between childhood hunger and future health and behavioral problems, as well as worse educational, economic, and social outcomes, is well established in academic research. If even 70 percent of eligible students were enrolled in free school meal programs, rather than the roughly 50 percent enrolled now, the research suggests a full 800,000 more kids would graduate high school and 3.2 million would perform significantly better on tests.
Despite all the evidence that kids are going hungry, and all the evidence that student hunger impairs outcomes in ways that will cost society significantly in the future, federal programs that target hunger continue to face budget cuts. Hundreds of thousands of children would lose school meals under a House Republican proposal that cuts tens of billions of dollars from federal food spending.