According to the report released by FRAC, Utah ranks last in the nation for the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and who also participated in the breakfast program. The study, based on data from the 2011-2012 school year, shows that only 33.9 percent of Utah students who qualified participated in the school breakfast program, compared to 70.2 percent in New Mexico, the state that had the highest participation rates. Utah was also the only state that did not see an increase in the number of students that participated.
FRAC is a non-profit organization that works to develop public and private policies “to eradicate domestic hunger and under-nutrition,” according to their website. According to the group’s report, higher numbers of students participating in the school breakfast program “supports health and academic achievement for low-income children.” FRAC’s data suggests that students who participate generally demonstrate better behavior, resulting in fewer classroom disruptions. They also experience fewer absences, and demonstrate fewer emotional and behavioral problems, according to FRAC.
The report states that nationally 50.4 percent of low-income students who participate in school lunch also participate in school breakfast. According to Luann Elliott, the director of the Child Nutrition Programs at Utah’s State Office of Education, one of the reasons for Utah’s low participation rates may be the fact that the state does not require all schools to serve breakfast.
Debbie Rappe, director of the child nutrition program for Grand County School District, said she was not surprised by the report. Rappe said her records show that participation in the breakfast program at Grand County schools is even lower than the state average. She said the percentages vary from year to year.
“Some years it’s really good,” she said. “This year it’s gone down.”
At Helen M. Knight Elementary School, Rappe said, 32.6 percent of free-lunch participants also eat breakfast at the school. Only 14.5 percent of students who participate in the reduced-lunch program participate in the breakfast program. Those numbers are even smaller at other schools in the district, she said. At Grand County Middle School 30.4 percent of free-lunch participants and 19 percent of reduced-lunch participants eat breakfast at the school.
Rappe said she believes the timing of the breakfast meals at the schools is one reason more students don’t participate.
“At HMK a large percentage of those students ride the bus to school,” she said. “They get in late and it’s hard to eat before class.”
Rappe said some teachers allow students to come to class a few minutes late in order to make sure they have had the chance to eat breakfast at the school.
Rappe said she works hard to ensure that the breakfast and lunch offerings are appealing to the students, and she also discusses the school breakfast program with all of the parents who have children who qualify for the free/reduced meal program.
“There are things like the Grab ‘n Go program that we can do, but most people don’t want to deal with that mess in their classroom,” Rappe said, referring to a program that involves providing meals on carts in the hallway that students can take with them to eat.
The report from FRAC recommends several ways that states can increase the number of students who are served through the free breakfast program. The group states an ultimate goal of having 70 percent of qualifying students participate in every state. In addition to mandating that schools offer breakfast and expanding outreach, FRAC also suggests offering free breakfast to all students regardless of income levels, as well as building breakfast into the classroom schedule.