SALT LAKE CITY — It's 8 a.m. Seven-year-old Mercedes Trujillo steps off the school bus with her peers, flooding the empty hallways of Guadalupe Charter School.
"Breakfast!" she shouts, removing her well-fitted green coat to take her seat in the cafeteria.
Mercedes is one of 146 students at Guadalupe Charter School who receive free breakfast under the National School Breakfast Program.
"Breakfast is big part of her education," says her mother, Melinda Montano. "It's such a relief to me, knowing she gets fed well."
Montano, a mother of three, works at a local insurance agency. As a single mother struggling to make ends meet, she is thankful for the added time.
"It's just one less thing I have to worry about as I get them ready and rush them to school," she said.
But fewer Utah students are taking advantage of the free breakfast program than their national peers.
Remaining low for the past 10 years, Utah ranked last in the number of students participating in the National School Breakfast Program last year, according to a new national report released Tuesday.
Just one in three students who participate in free or reduced-price lunch are also eating breakfast at school, the Food Research and Action Center found. Nearly 38 percent of Utah students participated in free or reduced price lunch last year.
"We'd like to think that all the kids who are not accessing breakfast at school are accessing breakfast at home," said Gina Cornia, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger, an organization working to build the public will to end hunger.
But with one in six households lacking the resources necessary to healthy eating, this cannot be the case, Cornia said.
Nationally, two milestones were hit. More than 90 percent of schools that operate the National School Lunch Program also offered the School Breakfast Program, and more than half of all low-income students who participated in school lunch also participated in school breakfast, the report found.
More than 10.5 million children in the U.S. received a free or reduced-price breakfast each school day during the 2011-12 school year an increase of 738,869 children from the previous year. In Utah, 51,925 students received daily free or reduced-price breakfast, an increase of 1,006 over the previous school year.
Meals missed also means dollars lost for Utah, Cornia said.
"If we were able to serve an additional 640,000 students, that would bring in $15.5 million more into this state," she said.
While Utah schools rank low nationally, many have seen improvement. Canyons School District went from 26,558 free breakfasts served in October 2011 to 29,182 in October 2012.
"That said, we are seeing a slight decrease in the average daily participation in school breakfast in general," said Jennifer Toomer-Cook, Canyons District spokeswoman. "The new USDA guidelines that have limited carbohydrates and proteins also have changed some of the breakfast options for our students."
In the Jordan School District, 35 of its 53 schools now serve breakfast, and that number is growing by three per year, spokeswoman Sandra Riesgraf said.
"Parents are approaching us, telling us there's a demand," Riesgraf said. "We couldn't be more thrilled."
Such successes were largely driven by efforts to streamline administrative processes, eliminate barriers at the federal, state and local levels, and adopt new "in-classroom" breakfast strategies, the Food Research and Action Center report noted.
Alternative ways of serving breakfast — such as breakfast in the classroom, grab-and-go before school starts or breakfast on the bus — increase participation, Cornia said.
"We're calling on every school district in Utah to examine its breakfast program and look at ways to reach even more children with a healthy morning meal," she said. "Utah can — and it must — continue to move forward."
Breakfast participation is key in improved school attendance, student behavior, learning and test scores, as well as student health, dietary experts say.
"One of the best tools we have to make sure that kids are ready to learn is that they don't start the day hungry," Cornia said.38 comments on this story
Children who eat breakfast tend to intake more vitamins, minerals and fiber, as well as less cholesterol over the course of a day, said nutrition expert Susan Mitchell. These children tend to be less overweight, exercise more and have fewer cravings later in the day.
"Breakfast is important for everyone, but particularly kids," said Mitchell, a Florida-based dietitian who serves on the advisory board for the Keiser University Dietetics and Nutrition Program. "We live in a competitive world where being able to focus, think, analyze, plan and be creative all determine success regardless of age. Breakfast is the springboard for the rest of your day."