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In Utah, only 39 percent of children who are eligible for free or reduced price meals do not participate in the School Breakfast Program.

March is National Nutrition Month, and this week is School Breakfast Week in Utah. Eating breakfast is more than just a full stomach, but includes getting the right amount of food and nutrients that can affect our physical, emotional and mental health.

Research demonstrates the benefits of eating breakfast — both from a health and academic standpoint. Children who consume breakfast are less likely to be obese, more likely to have lower cholesterol, and less likely to develop Type 2 diabetes, among other benefits. Breakfast consumption is also correlated with improved academic performance.

The federal School Breakfast Program makes it possible for children to start their day with a nutritious breakfast. But in Utah, only 39 percent of children who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals participate in the School Breakfast Program. The Food & Research Action Center, a national nonprofit organization working to eradicate poverty-related hunger, deems a successful program is one that reaches 70 percent of children eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

So why are Utah children not taking advantage of the School Breakfast Program? There may be a lack of awareness of the program. Research conducted in 2015 among a sample of Utah parents indicated that over 25 percent of parents were unaware if their child’s school offered school breakfast. Other reasons for low participation may include busing schedules, lack of time in the morning and stigma for participating in a “safety net” program.

The most common format of serving school breakfast in Utah is offering it in the cafeteria before the school day starts. Yet serving breakfast after the bell is a more effective model to increase participation, decrease barriers like busing schedules, lack of awareness and stigma.

Opponents of serving breakfast after the bell argue that it takes up instruction time and thus may have a detrimental effect on academic performance. But current studies have found no relationship between serving breakfast after the bell and negative test scores. Others are concerned that students consuming breakfast at home and breakfast at school may lead to increased calorie consumption and increased risk for becoming overweight or obese. But research conducted by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity identified that students who do not consume breakfast at all are more likely to be obese than those who consume multiple breakfasts.

So what can you do? As a parent, you could offer to work with your district food service director to head up a breakfast committee for your school or encourage school leaders to make breakfast part of the school day. As a community stakeholder, you could advocate for policies at the state level to count breakfast in the classroom as instructional time and encourage school leaders to track breakfast data. Other ideas can be found in a report written by the Utah Breakfast Expansion Team here at www.uah.org.

When schools move their breakfast out of the cafeteria and into the classroom, every child is given the opportunity to have a nutritious meal and increase their chances for health and academic success.

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Lori Andersen Spruance, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Public Health at Brigham Young University. Her research examines the food environment, specifically in the school, as a way to prevent obesity among children. She is a member of the Utah Breakfast Expansion Team (UBET), a statewide coalition that aims to increase breakfast participation in the state of Utah.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated 39 percent of children eligible for free or reduced-price meals do not participate in the School Breakfast Program. The opposite is true.