Maggie Den Harder is an intern with Oklahoma Policy Institute and a Masters of Public Administration student at the University of Oklahoma – Tulsa.
Experts agree that a healthy breakfast is crucial for children to grow and learn. However, in many families factors like hectic morning schedules and pinched finances mean that children don’t get a nutritious start for the day. This is where the School Breakfast Program comes in. Like the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program allows low-income students to receive meals for free or at a reduced price. A new report shows that Oklahoma’s school breakfast participation as a percentage of School Lunch Participation outpaces the national average. Maintaining and building on this success would bring a wealth of benefits to Oklahoma students while improving the finances of school nutrition departments.
According to the annual School Breakfast Scorecard produced by the Food Research Action Center, just 56 of every 100 students who participate in free- or reduced-price school lunch programs also participate in school breakfast programs. The disparity is caused by two primary issues: scheduling and stigma. Most schools serve breakfast before school starts, which means that students arriving by bus or carpool may not be able to get to school in time. In addition, for some children, eating school breakfast can be a stigmatizing public admission of poverty.
From better health to better learning, the benefits of school breakfast are well-documented, but whether students can access them depends tremendously on their state and school district. Oklahoma’s participation in the school breakfast program slightly outpaces the national average, with 58.7 percent of students who ate lunch eating breakfast, too. Overall, Oklahoma ranked 18th nationwide – higher than we usually fare on nationwide rankings. However, that 18th place is actually a drop from last year, when Oklahoma ranked 14th. Despite a 4.5 percent increase in the number of Oklahoma students in the school breakfast program, participation in Oklahoma hasn’t increased at the same rate as other states.
Increasing school breakfast participation in Oklahoma to 70 percent of school lunch participation would bring nearly $9.5 million in additional federal funding to Oklahoma schools every year.
Several states that saw greater increases are being more deliberate about building up participation in the program. The Community Eligibility Provision, which allows high-poverty schools to provide breakfast and lunch to all students at no charge, has been a very popular program in some states, but participation lags in Oklahoma. Similarly, a number of states – Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Virginia, as well as Washington DC – have passed laws requiring some or all schools to offer breakfast after the bell, which increases participation and diminishes the stigma frequently associated with eating school breakfast. After Nevada passed legislation requiring all schools with 70 percent or more students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch to serve breakfast after the bell in 2015, participation jumped 26.5 percent in a single year.
Getting a robust school breakfast program off the ground can be hard, especially for cash-strapped districts already taking measures like four-day school weeks to cope with insufficient funding. However, some aid is available. The Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom grant program, which aims to expand universal breakfast in Oklahoma, has small grants available to high-poverty districts with low breakfast participation to implement breakfast in the classroom. These grants can help schools defray the costs of switching to a breakfast-after-the-bell model – to cover increasing refrigerator space, for instance.
Increasing school breakfast uptake would not only help students. It would also bring more federal funds into school nutrition program coffers, in turn making those departments less reliant on other district funds. By FRAC’s estimation, increasing school breakfast participation in Oklahoma to 70 percent of school lunch participation would bring nearly $9.5 million in additional federal funding to Oklahoma schools every year.
The National School Breakfast Program is an integral part of our food security safety net, helping ensure that children have access to the nutritious food they need regardless of their family’s circumstances. Oklahoma has already made strides in the right direction. By increasing access to school breakfast, Oklahoma has the opportunity to lead in something positive, ensure that all children have access to regular, nutritious meals, and take some strain off school budgets. It’s the right thing to do for our children, families, communities, and schools.