CEDAR RAPIDS — Students ate breakfast in small groups around folding tables this week at Jefferson High School, chatting over trays of toast, scrambled eggs and oranges.
The food was OK, said Jonny Gorsline, a freshman — the toast was sometimes hard. But he eats breakfast at school most days, Gorsline said, because he doesn’t have time at home.
Jefferson serves about 150 to 200 students breakfast on an average day — about 10 to 13 percent of the school’s population — said the school’s cafeteria manager, Leta Boll.
That’s roughly consistent with student breakfast habits statewide, according to a survey of parents published this month by the University of Iowa’s Public Policy Center.
But officials at the Iowa Department of Education are pushing for more students to eat breakfast, whether at home or at school.
The issue is important for a variety of reasons.
Eating breakfast at school can improve children’s academic performance and behavior, according to a summary of available research compiled last year by Washington, D.C.-based lobbying organization Food Research and Action Center.
Specifically, research has shown that eating breakfast at school results in improved attendance, standardized test scores and — in some cases — mental health.
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“It’s important because they’re able to concentrate and sit still and learn, without worrying about being hungry,” said Carrie Scheidel, a co-director of team nutrition at the Department of Education’s food and nutrition bureau.
In Iowa, however, 17 percent of parents in the university survey said their children never eat breakfast. An additional 14 percent said their children eat it only sometimes.
And among Iowa students who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals at school, only about 40 percent participate in school breakfast programs, according to a February report from the Food Research and Action Center. Free and reduced-price school meals are subsidized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program.
Iowa ranks 48th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia on the Food Research and Action Center report.
LOGISTICS AND NUTRITION
The reasons why students don’t eat breakfast at school are mixed, according to the parent survey.
Among the parents who said their child did not always eat breakfast at school, 28.5 percent said their child simply would prefer to eat at home.
Another 18 percent said feeding their child was their job and responsibility, and 16 percent said their child did not like the food at school breakfast.
Among parents who reported their child sometimes did eat school breakfasts, however, 12 percent said it was because their child liked the food served there.
There often is a stigma, Scheidel said, tied to the belief that only poor children eat breakfast at school. State education officials hope to increase the percentage of low-income students who eat breakfast at school by increasing school breakfast participation overall, she said.
Another common issue was logistics. Twelve percent of parents whose children did not always eat at school said it was because school breakfast did not fit into their schedules.
And 13 percent of parents whose children eat school breakfast said there wasn’t time to eat at home in the morning.
At Jefferson this week, students said they didn’t always like the food served at school, but they ate it anyway because the school’s breakfast time fit into their schedules.
Jefferson has time set aside for breakfast in its daily schedule, between an optional “early bird” class period before school and the regular first-hour class.
Students usually have about a half-hour to eat, depending on when they get to school. Those who don’t have a class during first hour can eat during part of that time.
Suzy Ketelsen, the Cedar Rapids Community School District’s food and nutrition manager, said all the district’s school breakfast programs are served before school. Also:
l About 15 percent of middle- and high-school students and 20 to 25 percent of elementary school students participate.
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l Thirty-four percent of district students eligible for free meals eat school breakfast, as do 21 percent of those eligible for reduced-price meals.
“We really do find that students who eat breakfast are energized and ready to go,” Ketelsen said.
MAKING TIME TO EAT
Scheidel said to increase participation, more schools need to build time into the day for students to eat breakfast.
One option, she said, is having a longer time between the first and second class periods of the day, when schools could provide a “grab and go” breakfast for students to eat in their next class. A 2013 study by professors at Michigan State University and Georgetown University found slight improvements in academic achievement among students who ate breakfast during class.
Scheidel said schools should work with students to provide breakfast when it works for them. Students’ “perception is they want to eat breakfast on school time, not on their time,” Scheidel said.
Schools also need to improve their communication about school breakfast with parents, Scheidel said. Some schools, she said, publish the breakfast at the bottom of the lunch menu, where some families might not see it. Others have the same breakfast menu every week.
Distribution methods for menus differ by school — some post the menus online.
Some parents in the university survey also said they didn’t believe school breakfast was healthy. But schools are required to follow nutrition guidelines in setting their menus, Ketelsen said. And at Jefferson, students are required to take a piece of fruit or a vegetable when they go through the breakfast line.
Scheidel said she’s not opposed to students eating breakfast at home.
“If your child is eating breakfast at home, that’s something we completely support,” she said. “We want to make sure parents are aware of school breakfast as an option.”