Philadelphia Inquirer, May 12, 2008: Editorial: School Breakfasts

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Studies have proven students who eat breakfast are more attentive, do better academically, and are less likely to be absent or tardy or cause disciplinary problems.

Yet every day more than 100,000 Philadelphia students skip a chance to eat a free breakfast at school. Every city school serves breakfast, and about 167,000 students are eligible for a free or reduced-price breakfast. But only about 50,000 of the youngsters participate in the program.

Improving the district’s academic performance could be as simple as getting more kids to eat breakfast. Twice as many city students get a free or reduced lunch daily. That twain needs to meet.

Nationally, only about 45 percent of students in the reduced or free lunch program eat a school breakfast. So Philadelphia isn’t alone in needing to do better.

Some students get to school too late to eat breakfast, a few do eat at home, while others stop at a convenience store for junk food.

In Philadelphia, part of the problem is the lack of uniform guidelines. Participation can depend on the actions of each school’s principal. For example, Fairhill Elementary has a 95 percent participation rate, according to a survey by Community Legal Services and the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.

Each principal has to work out logistical concerns such as whether to serve breakfast in the classroom or the cafeteria, or how to provide the additional food-service staff that may be needed.

Federal child-nutrition programs subsidize most of the costs, so funding should not be an impediment to providing more school breakfasts. Pennsylvania, too, has increased available aid to encourage school districts to set up breakfast programs.

Fred Farlino, Philadelphia schools interim chief operating officer, says he will make an “all-out push” to get more students to eat breakfast in the next school year. That’s good to hear.

For a good model, local officials can look at Newark, N.J., which has increased participation by serving breakfast in the classroom. Or Miami-Dade, Fla., which offers all students a free meal, regardless of family income. That eliminates the stigma associated with poverty. To accommodate late-comers, some districts offer a second-period breakfast or a “grab and go” convenience meal from the cafeteria or a mobile food cart.

There are good ways to make sure hunger pangs aren’t keeping a child from learning. We need to see more of them employed here.

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