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Introduction

M illions of families in the United States cannot afford to feed their children the healthy breakfasts needed to succeed in school. In 2009, according to the federal government, 17.2 million American children, or almost one in four, lived in food insecure households where their families faced a constant struggle against hunger. Two years earlier the number was 12.4 million children. The continuing recession has resulted in record numbers of low-income children participating in both the School Breakfast and National School Lunch Programs. In 2009–2010, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) reached nearly 20 million low-income children on an average day, an increase of 1.2 million compared to the prior year. Participation in the School Breakfast Program (SBP) also grew in the 2009–2010 school year—with 663,000 more low-income children eating breakfast at school each day than the year before. Indeed, use of free and reduced-price school breakfast (up 7.6 percent) grew faster than use of free and reduced-price lunch (up 6.4 percent).

Still, school breakfast reached only 47.2 low-income children for every 100 low-income children who ate free and reduced-price lunch. This is an improvement from the previous year, when the ratio of breakfast to lunch participation was 46.7, and a substantial improvement over the past five years when the ratio was 43.9. School breakfast provides a needed support to millions of struggling families, but with fewer than half of eligible children getting breakfast, too many children are missing out. A school may not offer breakfast or may make participation difficult or uncomfortable for children (e.g school buses arriving too late). Parents may be unaware of the breakfast program, or have trouble getting their children to school early enough due to work and commuting schedules. Many of the children who do not eat breakfast start the school day unable to concentrate and not ready to learn.

From every perspective—nutrition, health, education, productivity, restoring economic growth—cities should be doing much more to get children to breakfast and breakfast to children, and pulling down federal dollars to do so. School breakfast improves children’s diets, increases school achievement and positive student behavior, reduces obesity, and builds lifelong healthy eating habits. A full review of the positive effects of school breakfast can be found in FRAC’s School Breakfast Outreach Center at www.frac.org.

This report focuses on large urban districts* with many low-income students because of the great needs of their children and because of the cities’ unique position to benefit from economies of scale to increase breakfast participation. The concentration of poverty in many cities means that these districts have an especially important mission to ensure that children have access to adequate nutrition in order to learn, grow, and thrive. This report describes the gaps in many cities’ current efforts, and the strategies they can use to reach more children.

*FRAC gathered information for this report through a survey sent to 36 large school districts representing a broad geographic distribution around the U.S. Twenty-nine districts completed the survey. More information about the survey and methodology can be found in the Appendix.

Food Research and Action Center

School Breakfast in America’s Big Cities

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