Walk into any classroom at Deerfield Beach Middle School and you won’t have trouble spotting the students who missed breakfast. “They’re the ones who are antsy during first and second period,” said Principal Francine Baugh, “waiting for lunch to begin.”
That’s one rationale behind the federal program that subsidizes discounted meals for low-income students in public schools. Research as far back as the 1970s demonstrates a strong link between a morning meal and improvements in memory and cognition, and shows that school breakfast programs can produce better attendance and drops in school discipline incidents.
Yet even where breakfast is free, many kids go without: Nationwide, more than 20 million students eat free and reduced-price lunch at school each day. All those students are eligible for discounted breakfast too, but roughly 8.5 million of them—about 45 per cent —don’t eat breakfast at school.
Among large school districts, Broward County and Miami-Dade County have some of the lowest rates of breakfast participation in the country. But in Florida and around the country, the numbers are gradually ticking upwards as advocates emphasize school breakfast programs as a way to take advantage of existing federal subsidies.
School districts have launched a wave of experiments with how breakfast is served, from food trucks to “second chance” meals dished out during passing time. “We are hitting a tipping point,” said Crystal Fitzsimons, a longtime advocate for school meal programs with the Food Research and Action Council in Washington, D.C.
Students at Deerfield Beach Middle School describe their experience of breakfast in the cafeteria with words like “trapped” and “locked in.”
“You’re not allowed to get up without permission; you’re not allowed to go outside until the bell rings, “ said sixth grader Shirley Joseph. “You’re not allowed to have a food fight — that happened like six weeks ago!” she added, trailing off into giggles.
During the 2014-2015 school year, Deerfield Beach introduced a “Grab and Go” breakfast served at a kiosk outside on the patio.
“We get to walk around, go to the gym, like, you get to see stuff,” said eighth grader Artavius McMillan, standing at a picnic table as he ate a bowl of whole grain Lucky Charms.
The crowds are self-selecting. “I like to eat in peace,” one seventh grader declared inside in the cafeteria; outside, the ambience is half lunchroom, half playground, with games of tag weaving among the tables.
School menus are the product of a tight budget -- chools are reimbursed less than $2 for each free breakfast they provide — and complicated rules negotiated by the federal government and food lobbyists. What emerges from this process are items like low-fat sausage biscuits, skim, sweetened strawberry-flavored milk—and those whole grain Lucky Charms.
How that food is delivered can make a big difference in how much of it gets eaten. Debra Susie, executive director of the child hunger advocacy group Florida Impact, likes to tell the story of one Orlando school that had trouble getting students excited about school breakfast. Then they got a food truck.
“They put that same exact food on that food truck,” Susie said, "pulled it up to where the kids congregate, and the line went around the block.”
Deerfield Beach hasn’t seen much change from its Grab and Go breakfast yet. But other Broward schools have served dozens of additional students each day after introducing similar programs. In Miami-Dade, breakfast has been free to every student in the district for more than a decade, and the district now serves about 20,000 more breakfasts per day than it did in 2004, even as the number of school lunches has remained flat.
Advocates say much of the remaining gap between breakfast and lunch is logistical. “Lunch occurs in the middle of the school day; breakfast is treated more like an option,” Susie said.
Sometimes, it’s not an option. “The school buses often don’t get there in time for the kids to go to the cafeteria and eat a meal,” said sociologist Janet Poppendieck, author of Free for All: Fixing School Food in America. Though school buses in Miami-Dade typically arrive roughly twenty minutes before the first bell rings, Penny Parham, Director of the District’s Department of Food and Nutrition, insists that’s not an obstacle. “If a bus arrives late or with only a few minutes to spare, the principal will give students time to get breakfast,” Parham said. “It happens every day.”
Another factor, according to Poppendieck, is the longstanding perception that school breakfast is a program for the poor. “Little kids don’t care who pays,” she said. “But when they get to the age where they’re trying to define themselves, anything that would label them as poor becomes something they want to stay away from.”
One approach that addresses both those challenges is breakfast in the classroom. Large districts like Los Angeles and San Antonio have seen their numbers increase dramatically after introducing programs to serve breakfast during class, while teachers collect homework and take attendance.
But that’s not always an easy sell, partly because of the legwork: Serving breakfast in class requires extra cleaning, and re-working menus with meals that can be served on the fly. Poppendieck says the biggest factor is the attitude of adults working in a given school. Where they’re engaged and enthusiastic, classroom breakfast works without a hitch.
“Where teachers and principals were hostile or felt put upon and didn’t buy the idea,” she said, “it was much less effective.”
Correction: An earlier web version of this story stated that universal free breakfast in Miami-Dade schools began in 2014. That program has been in place since 2003-2004.