Below is an editorial I published with HISD Superintendent Terry Grier on the importance of the School Breakfast Program for student success, as it appeared in the Houston Chronicle this morning.  (Learn more about food insecurity in Texas.)

Provide students food for learning

Breakfast program can lift achievement

Aug. 15, 2011, 7:41PM

Imagine falling asleep at night with an empty stomach and then having to wait until lunch time the next day to have a decent meal. Imagine struggling to concentrate while learning how to read or to solve mathematical equations before getting that meal. This is a reality for many children in Texas.

Unlike many other challenges facing poor children however, this is one problem that can be solved and for which funding already exists … we just have to use it. Each school-day morning in Houston, roughly 320,000 students qualify for a free, federally funded breakfast but do not receive it. To address this problem, a few forward-looking school districts in our country have taken advantage of the best way to deliver nutritious food to students: serving breakfast in the classroom.

Why is breakfast such a critical step? Studies show students who begin each morning with a nourishing breakfast display greater cognitive ability, excel on standardized tests, are more attentive in class and earn better grades. Simply stated, there is a direct link between breakfast and higher academic achievement. When you consider the fact that a single class of high school dropouts will cost Texas an estimated $9.6 billion over a lifetime, the imperative is clear: We need to provide every student with the tools fundamental to learning, and breakfast is undeniably one of those tools.

We should distribute breakfast in the same manner as textbooks, desks and lessons: universally and in the classroom. The Houston Independent School District is one of the districts providing breakfast in the classroom. For HISD’s program, each morning school cafeteria personnel deliver hot meals to classrooms and each student has the option to take a nutritious meal. The whole process takes only a few minutes. While HISD is on board, more districts in Houston and Texas need to use the money available to ensure a healthy breakfast to their poorest and hungriest students.

Where are the funds coming from? After the passage of the National School Lunch Act in 1946 (and the later addition of breakfast to the program in 1966), any student living at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level qualifies for a free or reduced-price meal at school. However, while this program does give more than 3 million students in Texas the opportunity to eat breakfast, it does not guarantee a child access to the free meal. A number of circumstances affect a student’s ability to eat, regardless of cost, such as long commutes to school, late arrivals and the social stigma associated with receiving free meals. Whatever the precluding factor may be, the bottom line is that simply removing the cost barrier is still leaving 320,000 qualifying students without breakfast.

But the federal funds don’t cover the entire costs for these breakfasts, and since times are tight, how can we afford to offer every student free meals? Well, implementing the Universal Breakfast program in schools with at least 80 percent qualifying students is actually cost-neutral. Under the existing federal funding structure, “severe need schools,” meaning those with a significant portion of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches, receive a higher reimbursement rate for each meal the school serves. Simultaneously, the more meals a school serves, the lower the per-meal cost from food distributors. As such, funding for the Universal Breakfast program will not exceed current costs.

Apart from the academic benefits linked to morning nourishment, there are a variety of health outcomes associated with breakfast. Research indicates that by eating breakfast, a student gets more of the essential nutrients for healthy development and immunity, making him or her less susceptible to common illnesses. Additionally, adolescents who eat breakfast tend to have lower body mass indexes than those who do not. Last year, Texas spent more than $9.5 billion on obesity-related illnesses; that figure alone is a reason to ensure that every student eats a nutritious breakfast each morning.

Breakfast in the classroom takes only a few minutes each morning, but the long-term impact it will have on our students’ well-being and academic success is worth the effort. We know that a strong academic foundation is the linchpin for success later in life. Texas can no longer afford to ignore the barriers that threaten high achievement in school.

Sanborn is president and CEO of Children At Risk; Grier is superintendent of the Houston Independent School District.

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