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The national School Breakfast program still only reaches about half of low-income students who could benefit from starting their school day with a nutritious meal. Why are students who are taking advantage of free lunch missing out on free breakfast?

For starters, time and place matters. In most schools, breakfast is served in the cafeteria before children even arrive at school. Some students can’t arrive in time, particularly if they’re dependent on buses or parents’ work schedules, and older kids may opt to hang out with their friends before the bell rings instead of eating breakfast in the school cafeteria.

Another challenge, especially among low-income children, is the stigma attached to who eats school breakfast and why. Currently the system is based on family income: Children from the neediest families eat breakfast for free, and those from lower income families pay a reduced price for meals. (And still others, from higher income families, don’t receive free meals, creating a clear distinction among socioeconomic backgrounds.) Michelle Obama’s announcement last week — to expand a program that offers free breakfast and lunch to all students in schools where at least 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch — will help to remove some of that stigma.

But one surefire way to increase participation nationwide is to serve breakfast in the classroom. This makes breakfast available to all students, no matter their economic background, and it’s served after the start of the school day. With more kids participating, schools can increase the reimbursements they receive from the federal government, which could help to cover any additional cost. A bill pending in the Nebraska Legislature would do just that, and officials in Durham, N.C., public schools are experimenting this year with making free breakfast available to all students.

The benefits of breakfast are well-documented. For students, it helps reduce hunger, tardiness, absenteeism, and visits to the school nurse, and it improves their overall nutrition while protecting against childhood obesity. Additionally, children’s classroom performance, test scores, concentration, comprehension, memory, and behavior all have been shown to improve as a result of participating in the School Breakfast program.

Providing breakfast is only part of the solution; getting it into students’ hands is the other. By bringing it to the classroom, schools can avoid stigmas and give all students one of the best foundations from which to start their day.

Ed Trust has joined the Breakfast for Learning Education Alliance, which aims to encourage schools and states to adopt successful strategies to increase school breakfast participation.

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