Inquirer Editorial: The better students eat, the more they learn

Posted: January 25, 2013

If breakfast is the most important meal of the day, why are so many public-school students needlessly going hungry?

Only 35 percent of New Jersey's 471,714 children eligible for a free or reduced-price meal received breakfast at school last year. That's among the lowest participation rates in the country. New Jersey ranks 46th in the number of low-income students who get breakfast at school. Pennsylvania is 36th. Nationally, only about 50 percent of students in the reduced or free lunch program eat a school breakfast.

Research shows students who eat breakfast perform better academically, have better attendance, make fewer visits to the school nurse, and have fewer disciplinary problems to disrupt learning.

The low participation rate isn't due to a lack of money, because federal funds cover the cost of breakfasts. Experts say lack of leadership, from the top down, is a bigger factor than money. If a principal makes the effort, more of his students are likely to eat.

In Philadelphia, for example, there is a huge disparity among schools that serve breakfast, according to Public Citizens for Children and Youth, a children's advocacy group. At Moffet Elementary in Kensington, 92 percent of the students eat breakfast, the highest percentage in the city. But at Pastorius Elementary School in Germantown, just 12 percent of students eat breakfast, the lowest number in the city.

Because Philadelphia has a universal feeding program, any student who wants breakfast can have it, regardless of income. But only about 59 percent who eat lunch also eat breakfast. Breakfast participation in all Philadelphia schools has remained the same for the past two years.

New Jersey has been impressive in getting more schools to participate in breakfast programs, largely due to an aggressive campaign by the Advocates for Children organization. Last year, 16 percent more New Jersey children had breakfast at school.

Using a "breakfast after the bell" approach, schools have found the best way to feed students is after the school day has started. When breakfast is served before the school day, too many students arrive too late to eat.

Experts say the schools with the most successful breakfast programs allow students to eat in their classrooms, and they offer meals to every student to eliminate the stigma associated with poverty. For some children, breakfast or lunch at school may be their only hot meals of the day.

Egg Harbor Community School in Atlantic County was only feeding 11 percent of its 500 students. That changed drastically last year when it began serving breakfast in the classroom and saw the students eating the meal rise to 85 percent.

That strategy should be replicated by other high-poverty districts, including Camden, where only 39 percent of the eligible children get breakfast at school, despite the high concentration of poor families. Schools should do whatever they can make sure students aren't hungry. Research has shown that can be the difference in how much they learn.

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