Jan Poppendieck
Jan Poppendieck

 This is a guest post by Janet Poppendieck, Professor Emerita of Sociology at Hunter College, City University of New York, co-founder of the New York City Food  Policy Center at Hunter College and senior fellow at the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute at the CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy. She is the  author of several books, including Free For All: Fixing School Food in America, which received the 2010 Book of the Year award from the Association for  the Study of Food and Society.

This is part two of a three-part series on the history of the School Breakfast Program. Check out part one to learn more.

In 1989, FRAC launched its first annual School Breakfast Scorecard, which calculates, for each state and the nation as a whole, the number of students receiving a  free or reduced-price breakfast for every 100 such students eating school lunch. More recently, FRAC began publishing its annual School Breakfast: Making it Work  in Large School Districts, highlighting similar comparisons for major school districts.

The Scorecard sets a national target based on the performance of the top-ranking states, and calculates the amount of federal dollars that states forgo when they  don’t reach the target. Equipped with such figures, and with the mounting research showing the positive effects of school breakfast on health and learning, over the  years advocates in a number of states have undertaken campaigns to obtain state assistance in expanding the School Breakfast Program (SBP).

Since FRAC started publishing the Scorecard, the number of states that have mandated some or all schools participate in the SBP has nearly doubled, from 15 to 28, including seven that mandate the program in all schools statewide. Seven additional states provide incentives by offering start-up grants, adding state subsidies for each breakfast served, or paying the reduced price meal charge.

When the Scorecard began, less than half of the nation’s public schools that offered the school lunch also offered school breakfast. By 2016, 92 percent of the nation’s schools offering school lunch offered school breakfast.

Of course, getting schools to offer the program is only half the battle. In order to ensure that children actually eat school breakfast, advocates have worked at the federal, state and local levels to make the meals healthy and appealing, and to remove the barriers that deter participation.

Research has identified four primary barriers to participation:

  • the application and certification processes;
  • the affordability of school meals for reduced-price and paid students;
  • stigma associated with school breakfast; and
  • timing.

Certification: Advocates have worked to eliminate the errors and lapses in the application and certification process that commonly excluded children from the program, first by establishing direct certification as an option in 1986, then by requiring it in all school districts in 2004. Certain students are eligible for free school meals, without filing an application (“directly certified”), including those who live in households participating SNAP, TANF or the Food Distribution Program for Indian Reservations or are homeless, in foster care, migrant, or in Head Start.

These students can be directly certified for free school meals through data matching. School districts are required to directly certify students who live in households participating in SNAP and have the option of directly certifying other categorically eligible students. Further, in 2004 the certification period was extended to last for the entire school year, easing administration for schools and ensuring access for low-income students.

Affordability: The federal reimbursement for reduced-price breakfasts is thirty cents below the reimbursement rate for free meals, and schools are allowed to charge a maximum of $.30 for a reduced-price breakfast. As more and more schools began using point of sale software to identify children assigned to the full price and reduced-price categories, cashiers began reporting that many children just didn’t have the $.30. Eight states now absorb the $.30 charge, and many individual districts choose to eliminate the reduced-price charge for breakfast altogether.

The income eligibility standards for school meals are uniform at the national level, except that there are higher thresholds for Alaska and Hawaii. Especially in high cost of living areas, children in the full price category may lack the wherewithal to purchase the meals. Universal free breakfast has been adopted by many school systems to address this problem, using a number of options, including: Provision 2 (a regulation permitting schools that agree to feed all children for free to apply a blended federal reimbursement rate and to collect income data only every four years); non-pricing, in which schools simply do not collect fees; or the Community Eligibility Provision, enacted nationwide in the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010.

Stigma: Community eligibility not only reduces paperwork and eliminates errors, it addresses what is probably the largest remaining barrier to student participation — the stigma that school meals are only for the “poor kids.” By enabling schools in high poverty areas to feed all children free without applications, community eligibility helps the School Breakfast Program achieve its potential for a healthy start to the school day for all. FRAC’s most recent Scorecard shows that breakfast participation has expanded rapidly in districts and schools that have implemented this option.

Timing: Even when breakfast is free for all children, many will miss out on the meal if they arrive at school too late to participate. When advocates, school officials, educators, and communities looked closely at the breakfast programs in their school districts, they found that school buses often arrived too late for their riders to eat before school began, and children arriving by other means were also often late.

Breakfast after the bell models such as breakfast in the classroom and “grab and go” breakfast provide a solution to the timing issue, and have been successful in many schools. When breakfast after the bell is combined with universal free breakfast, school breakfast participation rises dramatically.

We know there are solutions to increasing school breakfast participation rates — now the task is to persuade even more school districts to implement them.

To learn how advocates at the local, state, and federal levels have kept up the momentum around school breakfast to make the program as popular as it is today, read part three of the history of school breakfast.