KIDS COUNT: R.I. needs to boost student access to school breakfast

THIS GRAPH IN R.I KIDS COUNT’s latest policy brief shows that Rhode Island schools with the highest rate of participation in school breakfast programs use a combination of the federal Community Eligibility Program, which reimburses schools for providing both free breakfasts and free lunches to all students, and an
THIS GRAPH IN R.I KIDS COUNT’s latest policy brief shows that Rhode Island schools with the highest rate of participation in school breakfast programs use a combination of the federal Community Eligibility Program, which reimburses schools for providing both free breakfasts and free lunches to all students, and an "alternative breakfast service" that makes breakfast part of the school day./ COURTESY R.I. KIDS COUNT

PROVIDENCE – More than four out of five Rhode Island schoolchildren aren’t participating in a school breakfast program and many of those children are missing an opportunity to get a meal vital to their education and well-being, according to a R.I. KIDS COUNT policy brief released this week.

The report said school breakfast participation is higher in the core cities of Providence, Pawtucket, Woonsocket and Central Falls, where poverty rates are the highest in the state. Breakfast program participation in those four cities is 36%

In the remainder of the state, however, the participation rate is 10%.

Rhode Island law requires that public school make breakfasts and lunches available to all students, but participation in breakfast at school is lowest in schools without a universal program that provides free breakfast to all children regardless of income. At those Rhode Island schools, participation is as low as 8%, according to the KIDS COUNT policy brief.

- Advertisement -

In contrast, schools where there is a universal program, which removes some of the stigma associated with school breakfast, participation runs at about 20%, the report said.

And that participation rate climbs to 70% in schools that use a combination of the federal Community Eligibility Program, which reimburses schools for providing both free breakfasts and lunches to all students, and an “alternative breakfast service” that makes breakfast part of the school day.

The R.I. KIDS COUNT brief cites research from the Food Research and Action Center that shows children who participate in school breakfast have improved attendance, behavior and grades. In addition, the Food Research and Action Center says, students who eat breakfast closer to test-taking time do better on standardized tests than those who skip breakfast or who eat at home.

The Food Research and Action Center also says low-income children who eat school breakfast are more likely to have a healthier diet and are less likely to be overweight. Also, they are likely to experience positive effects on mental health, according to the center.

But the KIDS COUNT brief notes that only 53 low-income Rhode Island schoolchildren participated in a school breakfast program for every 100 low-income students who participated in a school lunch program in 2017-2018. That placed Rhode Island 33rd in the nation for participation in school breakfast programs, KIDS COUNT said.

To boost participation in school breakfast programs, the KIDS COUNT brief recommended that state lawmakers pass legislation requiring school districts that are eligible for the federal Community Eligibility Provision to participate in the program or seek a waiver. (Schools and districts qualify for CEP if more than 40% of their students are from low-income families.)

Other recommendations include:

– Pass legislation requiring high-poverty districts and schools to provide “breakfast after the bell” to increase school breakfast participation.

– Encourage all schools to offer “breakfast after the bell” or “grab and go” and “second-chance breakfast” models that can make breakfast part of the school day.

– Encourage all schools to offer breakfast at no charge to all students using the CEP, if eligible, or implementing a universal breakfast.

– Provide funding to support districts and schools implementing “alternative breakfast service” to purchase equipment and supplies such as meal carts that make that service more efficient.

– Raise awareness about how increasing school breakfast can be part of a statewide strategy to reduce chronic absence, improve grade-level reading, reduce childhood hunger and obesity, and improve children’s emotional well-being.

William Hamilton is PBN staff writer and special projects editor. You can follow him on Twitter @waham or email him at hamilton@pbn.com.