SALT LAKE CITY — Many Utah schools have increased participation in school breakfast programs using tried-and-true methods employed across the United States.
But, the state ranks last in the number of children who qualify for the program but aren't taking part.
A new report released this week recommends ways for the state to change the numbers and help more children start their school days ready to learn.
"This is a huge area to be improved," said Utahns Against Hunger advocate Marti Woolford. "We really need our education leaders, school district leaders and Legislature to support changing this."
During the 2014-15 school year, an average of 34 low-income students ate breakfast for every 100 who received free or reduced-price lunch.
Not only does low participation mean missed meals for kids, but if Utah could reach at least 70 of the 100 students who qualify for and eat free or reduced-price lunches, the state would receive more than $14 million in additional funding for child nutrition.
The report, "Starting the Day Right," includes data on how eating a healthy breakfast can help prevent obesity, improve cognitive functions, grades and test scores, and reduce absenteeism. The report points to increased nutrition standards by serving breakfast at school, which helps kids consume more fruits and vegetables and milk products.
Recommendations presented in the report by the Utah Breakfast Expansion Team include serving breakfast in the classroom, where kids can participate without having to arrive early to school, or having to choose between eating or playing with friends before school. Another strategy includes eliminating the reduced-price category and making breakfast for qualified students from low-income families available either free or at full price. Or, just offer breakfast to all students in the school.
The more eligible kids who participate, the more tax dollars can be drawn from the federal government to support the programs. And Woolford said grants are available to at least 46 schools throughout the state.
Another way that advocates believe participation could be increased is through better marketing of breakfast programs — informing parents of the option.
Schools in rural areas, like the San Juan School District where most students arrive on the bus, have seen success just nudging students into the cafeteria to start their day.
"All of this is doable," Woolford said. "Schools can find one or more of these models that could work for them."
The report includes success stories from districts and schools that have changed their ways to include more students — "examples that are working," Woolford said.
"We went from around 2 percent paid students eating breakfast to around 15 to 20 percent," Paul Guymon, child nutrition coordinator at the Logan School District, told members of the Utah Breakfast Expansion Team. "This helped reduce the stigma that school breakfast was only for the poor. Many students enjoy eating breakfast at school now."
The report has been sent to Utah lawmakers, education associations, county and city mayors, advocate groups and anti-poverty networks, to get the word out about potential ways to help increase participation in breakfast programs.
"Utah can do more for its low-income children, and making sure they begin the day with a full belly is a good place to start," Woolford said.
One complaint of such programs, she said, is that people believe children should be and are being fed at home. But in some cases, "these children aren't eating as nutritiously or as much as their bodies and brains might need to function the best they can."
"It's a dangerous assumption," Woolford added, saying that "the need to make a change isn't anything for (Utahns) to be ashamed about — there's a better way to do breakfast at school and this report highlights those ways."