Pa. schools offer free breakfasts, but students don't show up

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Fewer than half of students eligible for free school breakfasts show up for what some call the most important meal of the day.

To increase the number of students eating breakfast, the state Department of Education, with help from some nonprofits and food retailers, is sponsoring a school breakfast challenge, offering cash prizes for those who increase their percentages of participation the most.

The competition kicked off in January and runs through March, and about 1,100 schools are participating.

Pennsylvania currently ranks 39th among states for student participation breakfast programs.

Statewide, the more than 600,000 students who receive free and reduced-price lunch also qualify for free school breakfast.

Among the local districts participating in the challenge is Elizabeth Forward, where district officials have been making changes to the breakfast program in recent years to up participation. At the high school and middle school, there are breakfast grab-n-go stations at which students can pick up food items such as fruit, muffin, cereal and milk and take them with them to homeroom.

Superintendent Bart Rocco said the grab-n-go makes it possible for students to still socialize with their peers in the morning and eat breakfast. In the past, if they had to make a choice, they chose social time over breakfast.

Julie Zaebst, policy manager at the Coalition Against Hunger, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit working with the state Education Department, said one of the most effective ways to increase participation in breakfast programs is to provide grab-n-go opportunities.

"Students can pick up breakfast that is easy to transport and eat as they start their day," Ms. Zaebst said.

She said students who eat breakfast tend to have fewer discipline problems and are better able to concentrate on their school work.

Another effort in Elizabeth Forward is at William Penn Elementary, which has the highest percentage of free and reduced-lunch-eligible students in the district. There, school leaders are making special announcements about the breakfast program and sending information to students and parents frequently, Mr. Rocco said.

In the Gateway School District, only about half of the students who qualify for subsidized lunches are showing up for breakfast, said food service director Martin Lorenzo. Grab-n-go programs have been established at the district's two middle schools, and more hot sandwiches were added to the menu, which has increased participation.

Now the district is trying to find a way to increase participation at the high school. Mr. Lorenzo also said high school students are hesitant to give up social time and also may feel a social stigma about showing up for breakfast because not all students receive a free breakfast.

At Aiken Elementary in the Keystone Oaks School District, Steeler Kelvin Beachum is hosting breakfast Monday and explaining to students how eating breakfast can help them achieve in school. Keystone Oaks recently started a grab-n-go breakfast program at Aiken.

Mary Niederberger:; 412-263-1590.

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