SALT LAKE CITY — More than half of the kids getting free or reduced-price lunch at Utah schools are forgoing breakfast — at least the one their schools are offering at no extra charge.
Low participation rates in breakfast served at schools is something the state has struggled with for a while, ranking dead last among other states in recent years.
And it isn't because the kids aren't hungry.
"The expectation to get kids to school early when parents are trying to fit that into an already hectic schedule is hard to overcome," said Marti Woolford, with Utahns Against Hunger.
The group has been advocating for serving breakfast in the classroom, where all kids have access to it without the stigma of "being poor," she said, or having to get to school early to partake.
Six of 21 elementary schools in the Salt Lake City School District are already serving breakfast in the classroom. It makes a visible difference in the attitudes of students.
"There is a much more calm atmosphere in the mornings," said Katie Kapusta, a supervisor over child nutrition for the district. "Everybody is more calm and ready to learn after eating."
After getting staff and teachers on board, because more time and effort is required of them, Kapusta said, fewer students have been late to class and there may be academic benefits as well.
Nationally, students who are served breakfast at school have fewer disciplinary problems throughout the day, show improved test scores, require fewer nurses visits, among other positive outcomes.
In the short time Salt Lake City has been executing breakfast in the classroom, Kapusta said the main benefit has been that "kids are ready to start the day and ready to learn" after eating.
The program can only be offered at schools where 75 to 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, because the federal government reimburses the cost for those lunches, providing a little leeway for breakfast.
And to be effective, research has found that breakfast has to be made available to all kids in a classroom setting, instead of singling out only those who are eligible, which also ratchets up the cost.
Utah was recently selected as one of 10 states where eligible districts can apply for funding to help get the program off the ground at their schools.
Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom, a consortium of national education and nutrition organizations, will provide grants to some 45 schools throughout Utah, where finances may have been keeping expansion of school breakfast programs from happening, or where breakfast served before school in the cafeteria isn't reaching all the kids who need it.
The group will distribute $7.5 million from the Walmart Foundation to applicants across the nation. Partners will work with state affiliates and change how school breakfast is delivered by offering it to all students at no charge and moving it from the cafeteria to the classroom.
At Backman Elementary School in Salt Lake City, students begin their school days in the cafeteria, where they can select from available options, all of which meets nutritional requirements for a healthy breakfast.
Kapusta said students choose from fruits, whole grains and a selection of low-fat milk options. They take their selections to their classrooms and eat at their desks.
Some teachers conduct activities or read announcements during that time to make the best use of it, she said. Everything is prepackaged for food safety and easier cleanup.
Grants from Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom have already helped 36 school districts in 18 states feed more than 63,000 additional students a school breakfast. The group believes improving participation in school breakfast programs will boost learning and health among children.
"A nutritious breakfast sets the stage for a great day, so students are not starting off hungry and can retain what they are taught," said Heidi Matthews, president at the Utah Education Association. She said a lot of Utah students could benefit.
Utah School Employees Association President Jerad Reay said breakfast in the classroom has been proven to increase attendance and decrease tardiness. There are also fewer behavioral and discipline problems to deal with when kids have been properly fed.
"Those benefits are what the students in Utah deserve," Reay said.
A handful of districts in Utah have already started offering breakfast in the classroom, instead of before school in the cafeteria, where eligible students may be giving up time to socialize with peers or prepare for their school day to participate.
In addition to some Salt Lake City schools where breakfast is being served in the classroom, other schools are making changes that are making a difference for students.
Logan School District has made breakfast free for any student, regardless of their socioeconomic status, but it is still made available in the cafeteria.
And in the San Juan School District and other southern Utah schools, teachers and staff routinely ask whether kids have eaten when disciplinary problems arise, resorting instead to proactively dealing with the issue.
"It seems to take care of the behavioral problems," Woolford said.
Sure, some children may end up eating two breakfasts, but she said making sure everyone has access to a healthy breakfast is most important, as sometimes the one offered at school may be "more nutritious."
The grant funding, with no limit depending on the needs of each district, will assist with the upfront costs associated with starting a breakfast in the classroom program, including the purchase of necessary equipment, increasing awareness of the program in the community, short-term food and nutrition services staffing, as well as training for staff and teachers who will help implement it.
"An important piece of changing the way you serve school breakfast is getting staff on board and them wanting it to be successful," Woolford said.
It's a change in routine for many schools, and helping the transition go smoothly will likely warrant long-term success of the program.
"I expect to see our participation rate go up," she said. "Maybe not enough to get out of last place, but enough that more kids are getting the nutrition they need to effectively learn."
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