"Now open for breakfast."

Fast-food restaurants aren't the only eateries displaying that sign. It hangs in Utah schools.Ninety-five of the state's 654 schools have opened their cafeterias early to offer students a hearty beginning to the school day.

Participants in the federally subsidized program, the schools now have two hot meals for students each day - a trend that is growing across the country.

The number of participating Utah schools is up too, but Karen Stone, child nutrition specialist in the Utah Office of Education, believes Utah's acceptance of school breakfast is too slow, and it concerns her.

"There are a lot of hungry children out there, and we're talking about the best buy in town," she said.

Davis School District charges 50 cents for breakfast; Salt Lake School District's price is 70 cents. Children who meet certain financial eligibility rules may eat free or pay a reduced price.

The federal government reimburses school districts for breakfast as it does for school lunch. Districts can collect anywhere from 19 cents to $1.06 per child for breakfast - a higher rate than for school lunch - depending up the financial status of the child and the area in which the school is located.

Despite the financial incentive, the bulk of the state's school-breakfast sites are in two school districts. Salt Lake has 21 schools offering breakfast, Davis has 34. Davis increased its sites by 10 schools this fall.

In the 15 other participating school districts, breakfast is usually offered at only one or two schools.

Breakfast is not available in 23 of the state's 40 school districts. The state's two largest school districts - Granite and Jordan - do not feed children breakfast, although one Jordan elementary school has asked the district for permission to introduce school breakfast. Salt Lake County's other school district, Murray, does not have school breakfast.

Stone believes breakfast sits on the school-meal back burner, even though it's been available for more than 20 years, because of resistance from principals and district administrators.

"The prevailing thought among district officials is that it's not their responsibility: School breakfast is taking family responsibility away from the family. . . That's what they used to say about school lunch, so kids had to walk home for lunch," Stone said.

The federally subsidized school lunch was introduced in 1943.

Bob Ward of the Marriott Corp., which manages the Granite food service, said the issue of school breakfast has come up several times, but the school board has resisted because of bus logistics and the liability in having schools open early.

But to Stone, such reasons cloud the real issue - hungry students. Besides, Salt Lake and Davis have managed to work out those concerns, she said.

Gale Ladwig, food services director in Salt Lake District, which has operated a breakfast program for more than a decade, points to another reason for slow acceptance of school breakfast here.

"In the whole state of Utah, school breakfast is pretty much served for poor children. There is a stigma attached to it," said Ladwig, who traveled the state last year as president of the Utah School Food Service Association.

That isn't true elsewhere. School breakfast is the norm in Phoenix, which served as the model for Salt Lake's successful school breakfast bars, where children can choose from several items.

"(In Phoenix) They have as many for school breakfast as for lunch. The working parents are taking advantage. They've overcome the stigma," Ladwig said.

Both Ladwig and Stone emphasized that it just isn't poor children or children of working parents who can benefit from school breakfast. Some children aren't hungry when they first arise or say they don't like breakfast, but they might be persuaded to eat it at school with their friends.

The nutritionists said studies have shown that breakfast can be the key to solving some classroom problems. "A hungry child doesn't learn, is more likely to have discipline problems and has a shorter attention span," said Ladwig, who reports fewer discipline problems at Salt Lake's breakfasts than at its lunches.

The belief that breakfast aids learning caused the federal government to re-emphasize school breakfast in the past two years. Last year, the federal government gave $3 million to schools buying extra equipment needed to add school breakfast. This year, $5 million is available. So far, no Utah school has applied for the federal assistance.

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(Chart)

Sample breakfast menus*

-Orange juice Cereal

-Sausage links Milk

Or

-Cantaloupe wedges Cinnamon roll

-Peanut butter Milk

Or

-Fruit cup -Biscuit

-Milk - Hard-boiled or scrambled egg

*Must meet federal nutrition guidelines