What if America’s schoolchildren could have a better shot at graduating high school and earning more money later in life, just with the help of a few million extra boxes of Cheerios and milk?
According to new research linking free school breakfasts with later academic and professional success, it’s possible.
A report from consulting firm Deloitte has found that if 70 percent of elementary- and middle-school students already eating free or reduced-price lunch in school also had access to breakfast in the classroom, it could mean that 3.2 million more students would score higher on their standardized math tests, up to 4.8 million fewer school absences per year and 807,000 more students graduating from high school every year.
But if that sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is. The money and resources required present an enormous obstacle to the goal of ensuring that no child in America starts their school day hungry.
While 21 million students have access to free or reduced-price lunch at school each day, only 11 million children eat breakfast in school. While President Obama has suggested the federal budget include funding to equip schools to serve breakfast, the money has not been approved by Congress, says Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.
“It’s so difficult to have a conversation about childhood hunger with the sequester,”Vilsack said, a few days before the sequester cuts were due to slash $85 billion from the federal budget. “600,000 people will go on a waiting list for [Women, Infants and Children Program benefits] after the sequester,” he added, referring to the federally subsidized food program from pregnant women and young kids.
Three out of five teachers surveyed said that they have children who regularly come to school hungry.
Leaders at Deloitte, the Department of Agriculture, and childhood-hunger organization Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign are ramping up their efforts ahead of National School Breakfast Week, which starts March 4th, and along with the release of A Place at the Table, a documentary about food insecurity across the nation.
“It’s about creating the political will to end hunger,” said Jeff Bridges, who serves as No Kid Hungry’s spokesman.
Beyond the major political and financial obstacles preventing students from starting their school days nourished, there’s also the stigma of eating a free breakfast at school rather than at home.
“There’s the idea that only poor kids go in for breakfast,” said Josh Wachs, the chief strategy officer of Share Our Strength. Experts say making breakfast part of every child’s daily routine in the classroom, rather than in the cafeteria before school starts—might lessen that stigma and encourage all students to eat a healthy breakfast.
Lesley Anne Jones, a fifth-grade teacher in Brooklyn, N.Y., says her school has recently started to provide her students with breakfast in the classroom, and she’s already started to “see improvements with their discipline issues and their focus problems. We used to bring in breakfast for the kids ourselves before they had state exams.”
The Deloitte report found that one out of five American schoolchildren struggle with hunger, and three out of five teachers surveyed said that they have children who regularly come to school hungry.
The report also found that students at schools serving breakfast are about 13 percent more likely to achieve proficiency on standardized math tests.
Schools that serve breakfast are also seeing a 7 percent decrease in chronic absenteeism. Deloitte CEO Joe Echevarria said he ate free school breakfasts and lunches during his youth in the South Bronx. “I suspect that’s one reason why I’m here today,” he said. The firm took on the childhood-hunger project pro bono.
Childhood-hunger experts and advocates say they know their goal of having every child in America start off their school day well-fed is ambitious, but believe that greater public knowledge about the pervasiveness of childhood hunger and the enormous effect school breakfast could make on the lives of millions of children can help turn the tide.
“Everyone should look into their own souls and ask, ‘What can I lend here,’” Bridges said. “It’s about more than scratching the guilt itch.”