The Most Important Meal of The Day: Implementation of Free-Breakfast Programs in School
By: Jake Schwartz, AmeriCorps VISTA Member
For many students, breakfast is typically an afterthought due to either how busy the average student is or the typical morning rush. Regardless of the reason, it seems that breakfast is seen as more of a burden instead of an important part of the day. For many other students however, breakfast plays a much more important role in their daily lives. Due to socioeconomic barriers, many students often go to school hungry, due to not having access to reliable food sources and, as a result, often have to skip breakfast entirely. The scope of this issue is well-known in this country, evidenced by the existence of a USDA initiative known as the School Breakfast Program that aims to combat this issue by working with schools to institute free breakfast programs. While this program is beneficial, and exists in around 78,000 schools serving 7.8 million children per day (USDA, 2019), there is still more that can be done for school children. Due to the effects that malnutrition can have on a student’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being - especially during the formative years for neurological development - free breakfast programs that are open to any and all students should be implemented in every primary and secondary school in the United States.
To better understand how free breakfast programs can help children in school, it is important to review the effects that poor nutrition can have on a developing student. General malnutrition has been linked to deficiencies in vitamin B12, thiamin, niacin, zinc, and iron - all of which are micronutrients that greatly influence cognitive function (Fanjiang and Kleinman, 2007). Students who are forced to skip breakfast are more likely to be lacking in some or all of these essential nutrients, and the results of these deficiencies are clear: children with defined food insufficiency between the ages of 6 and 11 years old consistently had lower arithmetic abilities and were more likely to repeat grades (Alaimo, 2001). These results are seen in older adolescence as well, with food-secure participants from 13 - 20 years of age consistently scoring higher on tests of attention, concentration, and verbal/spatial memory than their food-insecure classmates (Widenhorn-Muller, 2008). In addition to cognitive function, malnutrition also has wide-ranging effects on the mental health of students. Students with food insecurity display antisocial behavior at far higher rates than their well-fed counterparts (Alaimo, 2001) and tend to develop anxiety and depression at similarly higher rates compared to average students (Basch, 2011). The combination of these cognitive and mental/emotional effects manifest in many ways, including increased referrals to psychologists, higher instances of tardiness and truancy, and higher cases of disciplinary actions (detentions, suspensions, etc.) reported in food-insecure students (Basch, 2011). From a biological standpoint, when children are deprived of nutrition as a result of skipping breakfast, they are immediately and immensely hindered in their ability to perform well in a school setting relative to their peers.
As mentioned earlier, free breakfast programs are currently being implemented across the United States. In order to better understand why these programs are essential to the opportunities for students to succeed, the impacts of the program as it currently exists needs to be evaluated. Since its inception in 1966 and its permanent status since 1975, the USDA School Breakfast Program has served millions of children across thousands of schools (USDA, 2019). The effects of this program have been measured in a variety of ways, and the overall consensus is a cause for celebration: the implementation of the School Breakfast Program - referred to as “SBP” from here on - resulted in higher nutrient intake among inner-city students (Kleinman et al., 2002). SBP implementation also contributed to lower rates of tardiness and truancy in participating schools (Cook et al., 1996) as well as improved scores on standardized testing (Meyers et al, 1989) compared to the student population prior to the inclusion of SBP. Finally, schools with SBP saw lower rates of depression, anxiety, and behavioral issues among participating students (Basch, 2011).
While the SBP has shown promise in its implementation so far, and the underlying biology strengthens the argument for its importance, there is still more that can be done to ensure that all students have the opportunity to succeed in a school setting. Current guidelines allow for students at SBP-participating schools to purchase breakfast through their school. Financial assistance is built into the SBP, where students in families that make at or below 130% of the federal poverty level receive free meals, families between 130 - 185% are eligible for reduced-price meals, and families at 185% and above pay full price (USDA, 2019). Considering that the federal poverty level is between $21,330 and $34,590 for families of three and six, respectively (Amadeo, 2019), the cutoffs for the ability to receive free breakfast exist at an income that still may not be comfortable for families to be able to participate in the program. Due to the importance of proper nutrition on a student’s ability to succeed academically, socially, and emotionally, the SBP should (1) be implemented universally across every primary and secondary school in the United States and (2) should be subsidized by the federal government so that participation in the SBP is completely free to all students who wish to take part in the program. Making those adjustments to the current program will help further support future generations of students in numerous crucial ways without causing any extra financial strain on the families and the students affected by food insecurity - empowering students to be the best that they can be.
Greater Chicago Food Depository | (773) 247-3663
Chicago Public Schools | (773) 553-1000
USDA Food & Nutrition Services | (312) 353-1044
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