School Breakfast Scorecard 2012: Participation Hits Two Milestones

January 28, 2013

School breakfast hit key milestones in school and student participation during the 2011-2012 school year. The Food Research and Action Center’s (FRAC) School Breakfast Scorecard (pdf) found that, for the first time nationally, more than half of all low-income students who participated in school lunch also participated in school breakfast and more than 90 percent of schools that operate the National School Lunch Program also offered the School Breakfast Program. 

Such milestones, noted FRAC, were driven by efforts at the federal, state, and local level to reach out to students, to eliminate barriers and streamline administrative processes, and to launch breakfast in the classroom programs. Overall, more than 10.5 million children received a free or reduced-price breakfast each school day during the 2011-2012 school year, an increase of 738,869 children from the previous year. Every state contributed to this growth, and 10 states recorded double-digit increases from the previous year.

“More low-income children are eating breakfast and more schools are offering it, and that’s good news for children’s health and well-being,” said FRAC President Jim Weill. “Since FRAC launched its national school breakfast campaign in 1988, the share of schools participating has grown from less than 50 percent to more than 90 percent, and the number of children has grown from 31 percent to 50 percent. Such progress is to be celebrated, but it also shows states and school districts the path for moving forward and achieving even more successes in school breakfast.”

FRAC measures School Breakfast Program participation by comparing the number of low-income children receiving school breakfast to the number of such children receiving school lunch. Participation among states ranged from a high of 70.2 in breakfast for every 100 in lunch in New Mexico to a low of 33.9 per 100 in Utah. Five states – Kentucky, New Mexico, South Carolina, Vermont, and West Virginia – and the District of Columbia reached more than 60 per 100.

Since FRAC has been tracking breakfast participation, several strategies have emerged as contributing to higher participation rates. Chief among them is offering breakfast free of charge to all children, as well as moving breakfast out of the cafeteria and into the classroom after the bell. In addition, a new federal option, Community Eligibility, is showing promise to help states achieve large participation gains. The FRAC report found that the first round of Community Eligibility pilot states—Illinois, Kentucky, and Michigan—all saw larger breakfast participation increases among low-income children than the national average in the 2011-2012 school year.

A separate report by FRAC, School Breakfast: Making it Work in Large School Districts (pdf), echoed many of these findings. Comparing school breakfast participation and policies in 57 large, mostly urban school districts across the country, the report found that the school districts with the highest participation all have large-scale programs that allow students to eat breakfast in their classrooms at the beginning of the school day. The top 10 school districts all offer breakfast free to all or many students throughout their district, and all have breakfast in the classroom programs in at least one-third of their schools.

Among the surveyed school districts, participation ranged from a high of 92.8 low-income students in breakfast per 100 in lunch in Newark Public Schools to a low of 33.5 per 100 in Brentwood (Long Island, N.Y.).

Low participation means missed meals for hungry children and missed dollars for the state and city. If states could increase participation so they reach 70 children with breakfast for every 100 that also eat lunch, FRAC estimates that an additional 4.1 million low-income children would be added to the breakfast program and states would have received more than $1 billion in added child nutrition funding.

“Getting more children to start the day with breakfast fights hunger and improves nutrition and education outcomes. FRAC’s research is showing that there are proven strategies that lead to higher participation rates, which means that more children experience the benefits of breakfast,” said Weill. “States and schools that want to get serious about increasing breakfast participation have to get serious about making breakfast more accessible to students, whether that’s looking at breakfast in the classroom or other proven strategies.”