Schools are serving up breakfast, incentives

Participation in program sought

DAVID RICHARD/ASSOCIATED PRESSFruits, cereal, and applesauce are among the items given to students at Lorain Southview High School. DAVID RICHARD/ASSOCIATED PRESSFruits, cereal, and applesauce are among the items given to students at Lorain Southview High School. (DAVID RICHARD/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
By Lisa Cornwell
Associated Press / February 8, 2009
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CINCINNATI - The bagged breakfast waiting for Ricky Earl and other students when they arrive at school often includes fruit, cereal, milk, and mini doughnuts.

The number of students eating breakfast at Lorain Southview High School near Cleveland has grown from about 150 students to 900 since November, when the school dropped its cafeteria-style breakfasts in favor of delivering bagged meals to classrooms.

"You don't have to worry about missing breakfast because the bus was late or you couldn't get through the cafeteria line in time for class," Earl, 17, said.

School districts across the United States have been trying new ways to get more students to use the federally reimbursed school breakfast program, especially as more children become eligible for free and reduced-priced meals amid the recession.

Schools in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Florida are handing out bagged meals in or out of classrooms, offering breakfasts free to all students - not just those from low-income families - and providing incentives to get students to use the breakfast programs.

Nationally, about 8.5 million children participated in school breakfast programs on an average day in the 2007-2008 academic year, according to the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center in Washington, D.C.

While that was an increase of 327,000, or 4 percent, from the previous year, the program remained less popular than the national school lunch program that reached 18.4 million children.

"The dramatic changes in the economy make it even more important for schools to try to break down any barriers preventing qualifying children from participating," said Rachel Cooper, a policy analyst with the center.

School nutrition advocates say research shows breakfast is vital to children's health and academic success, and greater participation in the free and reduced-price breakfast program also can help schools financially by increasing reimbursements.

Participation is often low because of concerns by children that they might be viewed as poor, transportation problems that prevent students from getting to school in time for before-school breakfasts, and parents' lack of knowledge about the program, nutritionists say.

Offering free breakfasts to all students, especially in a classroom setting, helps eliminate any perceived stigma, said Susan Bartosch, spokeswoman for the Lorain City Schools in Ohio.

High schools and elementary schools that offer classroom meals have experienced fewer tardiness and discipline problems and increased student alertness, Bartosch said.

Cincinnati Public Schools still offer breakfast before school in cafeterias, but the district is using a grant from the Columbus-based Children's Hunger Alliance to draw more students at the high school level. The district holds raffles giving students the chance to win gift cards, music downloads, and an iPod.

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