How one small change got more students eating breakfast regularly.

They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day. For children, however, it may be more important than we knew.

In a 2015 survey, 3 out of 4 public school teachers said they taught students who regularly came to school hungry. The biggest reason it was happening? Not enough food at home.

There are over 13 million kids who live in food-insecure families right now, meaning over 13 million kids don't have access to a reliable source of nutrition.


"If the students are not eating and not taking care of themselves with basic needs such as breakfast, then they’re not going to perform or be able to listen well in the classroom," says Dan Sharp, director of nutrition services for Mesa County Valley School District 51 in Colorado. "It’s a critically important aspect for them to be able to learn."

Research shows that hunger can affect a child's behavior and brain development.

A review from RTI International found that food insecurity can damage a child's developing brain and reduce his or her capacity to learn. One study even found that third-graders who've been food-insecure since kindergarten saw a 13% drop in their reading and math test scores when compared to their food-secure classmates.

This clearly reduces a hungry child's potential for success in school — and in life.

Here's the thing though: Over 89,000 schools already offer breakfast. But only around half of the low-income student population participates.

That's right. Out of over 21 million students who qualify for a school breakfast, only 54% actually take advantage of it.

Image via Benny Lin/Flickr.

Why? Well, for many of these students, there's a certain stigma that comes along with it. Many are scared they'll be labeled as the "poor kids" when they're seen in the cafeteria so early. For others, they simply don't have the luxury to get to school way before class starts.

That's why school breakfast programs are more successful when meals are served after the first bell.

Hence the name for the Breakfast After the Bell legislation. Essentially, what this means is that some schools are no longer making breakfast an incentive if you're early. Rather, they're making it part of the normal school day. Schools either serve breakfast in the actual classroom or place a "grab and go" cart in the hallway for students to get what they need.

"It’s not just an educational importance," said Sharp. "To me, it’s also a childhood hunger program. It really is. It’s providing a gap in food needs for the highest poverty households that are in our school districts."

This minor shift in the model has already produced some exciting results.

Image via No Kid Hungry, used with permission.

A study by Deloitte found that students who eat breakfast in the classroom score an average of 17.5% higher on their standardized math tests.

They're more alert, more behaved, and less likely to get sick now that they have the fuel they need. This, in turn, sets them up for a much brighter future.

"The one [statistic] that really stood out to me was that those students who do eat a school breakfast have a 20% higher chance of graduating than their other counterparts who do not," Sharp said. "I thought that was a pretty significant impact."

Many cities and states are starting to make Breakfast After the Bell mandatory, but there’s still a lot of work left to be done.

Image via Channing Johnson for No Kid Hungry, used with permission.

Since 2010, several states, the District of Columbia, and cities like Los Angeles and New York City have required schools to serve breakfast after the bell. With the success and participation rates they've seen, it's absolutely important for other states to take notice of how this little change has the potential to make a huge impact.

Starting the day on a satisfied tummy can set the foundation for a successful future.

When you aren't hungry, it's easier to take on anything the world will throw your way. So the next time you wonder just how important breakfast is, just think about the future generations.

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