FRAC President Jim Weill and USDA Secretary Vilsack Chat About School Breakfast

Jim Weill had the opportunity for a one-on-one conversation with USDA Secretary Vilsack last week to talk about the importance of federal nutrition programs. We’ll be posting excerpts from the conversation throughout the week here on FRAC’s new blog, FRAC Chat.

Jim Weill: National School Breakfast Week starts today. Growing up, many of us learned from our parents and grandparents that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Could you talk about the importance of school breakfast?

Secretary Vilsack: We’ve recently done research here at USDA on the impact on children, generally, whether they are low-income or middle-income. Many families struggle every single day just to get their kids out the door, much less get them fed. Having access to a meal, like school breakfast–that does not stigmatize a young person–by having it available in the classroom, that consists of milk, whole grains and fruit, basically gives that youngster a good solid start to the day. We know from research that if children get that solid start, they will pay more attention in school, they will be less likely to arrive late to school, and they will be less likely to not go to school at all. As a result, they are more likely to perform better and, in fact, over the length of their school years, they are more likely to graduate from high school. Obviously, there is an educational achievement goal that is met with proper nutrition. There’s also health care research that suggests that youngsters who have access to a healthy breakfast are less likely to eat more than they should in other meals throughout the day, and that could potentially help to reduce the obesity epidemic that is plaguing so many of our kids today. So, whether you’re interested in academic achievement or making sure youngsters have a healthy childhood that leads to a productive adulthood, school breakfast is a linchpin to that effort.

Jim Weill: A lot of low-income children in high-poverty schools are getting breakfast and lunch at school at no charge because of the new Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). I really appreciate the partnership between USDA and FRAC in getting more schools adopting CEP. Can you share with our readers how successful you think CEP is?

Secretary Vilsack: Absolutely. First of all, let me acknowledge the work that FRAC has done over the last decade to encourage and expand opportunities for youngsters to access school meals. There’s no coincidence between FRAC’s advocacy and the fact that we’ve seen 5 million more children eating school breakfast today than 10 years ago. In just the last two years, we’ve seen an increase of 110 million meals being served at school breakfast. One of the factors that is leading to that increase in school breakfast, and for that matter, school lunch participation, is a community eligibility requirement that FRAC worked so very hard to expand and to get included in The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which was passed in 2010. Essentially, community eligibility eliminates the necessity of having youngsters take home an application to be filled out by their parents, have it returned to the school, and then put into a database to determine who is a free, who is a reduced-price, and who is a fully-paid school meals student. In school districts where there is a disproportionate amount of high-poverty kids, it doesn’t make much sense to go through that administrative process.

In doing meals through CEP, we then have a school that essentially treats everyone the same as if they were a free and reduced-price student and have access to school meals schools more easily. In 1,700 schools across the country, we are now seeing community eligibility in place; 60 percent of eligible schools are currently using this option. This means that 8 million more youngsters have access, and are more likely, to eat school breakfast and school lunch than they had before. That may explain why, in the recent past, we have seen a nine percent increase in school lunch participation and a 13 percent increase in school breakfast participation.

Beyond each of these percentages are hundreds of thousands of kids. These are kids who are going to get a nutritious meal or two at school and who will have the benefits of better results in school as well as better health outcomes.


Read FRAC’s School Breakfast reports here