Getting Breakfast to More Low-Income Children in D.C.

Editors Note: Alexandra Ashbrook is executive director of DC Hunger Solutions, a partner in our High 5 for DC's Kids Campaign. Learn more about the campaign here

A new report from the Food Research and Action Center finds that the number of low-income children in D.C. eating school meals (breakfast and lunch) increased in the 2009-2010 school year. The recession undoubtedly had a role to play in the increase – as more families became poor and near-poor, the number of children eligible for free and reduced-price school meals grew, and the program expanded to meet that increased need. 

In D.C., the number of children eating breakfast at school increased from 15,740 during the 2008-2009 school year to 18,051 during the 2009-2010 school year, but it was outpaced by growth in the lunch program, which rose from 33,429 to 37,706 over the same time period.

The fact that more low-income children are eating school meals clearly shows just how needed these programs are. And it demonstrates the work done by schools and advocates to ensure families know about these nutrition programs. But it is increasingly important to ensure that more children who can benefit also eat breakfast at school. Right now that number lags behind the number of children eating lunch.  For every 100 low-income D.C. children that ate school lunch, only 48 also ate school breakfast during the 2009-2010 school year. 

As we all know, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. 

But it’s not just about missed meals for children. It’s also about missed money for D.C. schools. If participation in D.C. rose to 60 low-income children eating federally funded school breakfast for every 100 low-income children eating lunch, 4,332 more low-income children would start the day with a healthy breakfast and D.C. would gain an additional $1,041,181 in federal funding. According to the FRAC report, two states, New Mexico and South Carolina, already exceed this goal and demonstrate that this is very achievable.

The implementation of the Healthy Schools Act is providing a tremendous boost to participation in the breakfast program. The Act, passed in May 2010, supports breakfast programs by making school breakfast free to all D.C. public school and public charter school students and mandates that elementary schools where 40 percent of more of children are eligible for free and reduced-price meals serve breakfast in the classroom.

The new law is already making a big difference. The first month of this school year alone saw an increase of 29 percent, with an additional 5,900 children eating school breakfast each day compared with the same month last school year.

“When children are in school, they are in our care and it is our responsibility to ensure they have a healthy environment and access to nutritious meals,” said Councilmember Mary Cheh, who co-introduced the Healthy Schools Act along with then-Council Chair Vincent Gray. “Higher participation in school breakfast translates to healthier children who start the day ready to learn. The Healthy Schools Act aims to improve participation by supporting breakfast program models that work. It’s a win-win for our children’s education and health.”

Read about one DCPS elementary school’s successful effort to increase breakfast participation through a breakfast in the classroom program here.