The School Breakfast Program, like the more familiar National School Lunch Program, provides subsidized meals to school children. Researchers have found that eating a nutritional breakfast at school improves students’ academic performance, reduces disciplinary problems, and increases the likelihood that students eat a healthful meal.
Unfortunately, when it comes to reaching children from low-income households with this program Iowa has long ranked near the bottom of states. On an average day in October 2013, Iowa served approximately 40 free and reduced-price breakfasts for every 100 free and reduced-price lunches. Based on a similar score, the Food Research and Action Center, a national nonprofit organization that studies hunger in the United States and advocates for nutrition and anti-hunger policies, ranks Iowa’s School Breakfast Program coverage as 47th out of 50 states and DC.
Assuming October to be representative of the school year, our state’s poor performance means that thousands of low-income children in Iowa are failing to access this important program. What might explain this? And should we be concerned?
Of course, some families and children may not choose to participate in the program. But long bus-rides, increases in the number of school children in poverty, and the demonstrated benefits of the program means we should think through making the program as accessible as possible.
The figure below includes two histograms showing the increasing number of school sites (that is, elementary, middle school, and secondary schools) with larger percentages of children eligible for free and reduced-price meals. According to Census data, the percentage of Iowa school children from households at or below the poverty line rose by approximately 2.5 points during this period. Of course, as the state grows the absolute number of children in poverty grows as well (unless the rate were to fall). In the end, the rate increase and the growth in population means approximately 20,000 more students from families in poverty attend Iowa schools compared to just a decade ago.
Additional research would be necessary (and may be forthcoming from DASIL) on why and where children are not able to access this program, but two points are worth making with a preliminary analysis of the data.
First, private schools perform much worse than public schools on this measure of coverage. The table below provides the ratio of free and reduced-price breakfasts to lunches for each October of the past ten completed school years. Whereas the histograms above merged public and private school data, this table separate them out by meal sponsors. Some private schools have their meals provided by a public school system and those children are listed under public schools in this table. Nonetheless, this analysis would indicate that we might want to look to private schools to help reach more low-income students with this nutrition program.
Fortunately, and perhaps because of the rising number and percentage of children in poverty, a larger percentage of Iowa school sites are offering the breakfast program each year. Still, as seen in the final table, approximately nine percent of the school sites in Iowa that provided a lunch in the 2013- 2014 academic year did not provide breakfast.