The Shame of School Breakfast

Students are skipping 'the most important meal of the day' because of its social stigma

Why are children skipping breakfast at school?

This is one in a series of stories; visit The Daily Meal Special Report: Breakfast in America: What It Is and What It Means for more.

You have probably heard of the school lunch program, but what about the school breakfast program?

Breakfast may or may not be the most important meal of the day — but countless studies have proven that eating breakfast has important benefits. As adults, we are left to our own devices; no one tells us what to eat or when, and many of us head to work each morning with nothing in our stomachs but coffee.

This is our choice and we must suffer the ramifications that start to kick in later in the morning or afternoon. But children cannot leave class, walk down the street, and buy themselves a piece of fruit or a bagel to tide them over until lunch time.

Extensive research has been done on the relationship between breakfast consumption and academic performance in children and young adults, with results showing that eating breakfast before class has a positive impact on the academic achievement of students.

America's School Breakfast Program began in 1966 to provide federally subsidized breakfasts to children at schools around the country. The program serves schools in poor neighborhoods as well as schools in areas where kids had to travel a long distance in order to make it to school. The program offers free or reduced-price breakfast to eligible students whose families have incomes near the poverty level. Children from families living below 130 percent of the poverty level receive free meals, while those between 130 and 185 percent pay a discounted rate.

Though there was once concern over the nutrient deficient-breakfasts provided — sugary cereals alongside equally sugary chocolate or strawberry flavored milk, for instance — new healthy dietary guidelines have been established, replacing such meal items with whole grain alternatives as well as fresh fruit and skim milk. Though Pop-Tarts and Lucky Charms may still be present, many schools opt for whole grain versions instead of the more common white flour varieties.

The meals themselves may not be nutritionally perfect, but nutrition is not currently the biggest problem facing the breakfast program. Jennifer Ramo, executive director of New Mexico Appleseed (a “nonpartisan, nonprofit organization focused on improving the lives of the poor and underserved through systemic change”) explained the situation to The Daily Meal: “Honestly, so many of the quality complaints about breakfast strike me as coming from a fairly privileged/oblivious perspective about how bad it may be at home for these kids. Of course these children deserve healthy and quality food... but giving them a breakfast that meets the federal nutritional requirements is a great thing to be able to do. Just because it isn't organic, free-range, etc., doesn't mean don't give them anything. We deal with kids who have likely not eaten since the night before or not adequately eaten... so something is much better than nothing.”

Why isn’t the breakfast program working 100 percent of the time? Though numbers have been increasing, there is still a large gap between the students who benefit from the lunch program and those that benefit from the earlier and equally important breakfast program. According to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC): “For every 100 poor children who participate in the school lunch program, only 53 are enrolled in the breakfast program.”

There are several factors that play into and affect how many students receive the government-subsidized meals.

Getting to school early enough to partake in breakfast before the bell rings is just not possible for all students — some live far away from school, and many rely on the school bus, scheduled to get students to school in time for class, not breakfast.

Parents’ lack of awareness about the breakfast program is another factor that effects how many students actually receive a free or discounted meal.

But perhaps the biggest reason students skip breakfast at school is that there is a social stigma associated with the free morning meals. When students arrive early to school, long before the bell begins to ring, everyone knows they are poor. Everyone knows why they are there in the cafeteria: because at home, there might not be a meal at all.

In an effort to combat the shame of school breakfast, many schools are coming up with ways of feeding students that crucial first meal of the day without alienating the students who rely most heavily upon it. Breakfast in the classroom is one way of feeding students without singling anyone out. In these programs, teachers hand out food to the students after the bell has rung, eliminating the distinction between students who need breakfast and those who are just enjoying a snack because it is there.

Another version of this classroom meal is the "grab and go" style of doling out easy meals to eat on the go. In hallways and on buses, students are given the chance to pick up something to take with them to class, once again removing any sense of being singled out. In New York City alone, more than 2,300 schools now serve breakfast in the classroom. Some school faculty, like Principal William Stitt of Baseline Middle School in South Haven, Michigan, take part in the program themselves in order to make students comfortable — Stitt eats at the school every morning and encourages students to join him for a nutritious breakfast.

There is still a long way to go before all the students who need a free school breakfast are actually getting one — and before those who do get breakfast are getting a healthy one. Advocates say an increase in funding, not surprisingly, would make a world of difference. In the words of Jennifer Ramo: “School meals may be gross sometimes, but what needs to change is the funding. Hard to serve scratch and healthy meals with the small reimbursement.”

Of course, any increase in funding is unlikely in the current climate, with both congress and the Trump administration currently in the mood to slash budgets. House Speaker Paul Ryan has criticized school food programs as wasteful and even demeaning to students, and critics have pointed out that, according to the Office of Federal Budget and Management, the National School Breakfast Program doles out roughly $1 billion every year in improper benefits, an error rate at least five times higher than other hot-button nutrition programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The current administration has also rolled back many Obama-era initiatives to improve the nutritional content of school meals.

Related

Increasing awareness of the obstacles faced by school breakfast programs has kept the issue of subsidized school breakfast in the public eye. While advocates work to improve administration and increase funding, many schools are doing what they can to remove the stigma that students feel when receiving the free breakfast. The true shame is that, even five decades into the National School Breakfast Program, many students still start their day without the fuel they need for academic success.