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School Breakfasts Linked to Test-Score Gains

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A new study that links better academic performance with participation in the federal school-breakfast program has energized a national campaign to have more schools serve early-morning meals.

Findings from the study, presented last month at the annual meeting of the Ambulatory Pediatric Association, indicated that students who ate the breakfasts made greater gains on standardized tests than their peers who did not participate.

In addition, the researchers reported, students who had a morning meal at school were late or absent less frequently than those who skipped breakfast.

The study provides the first "statistically valid'' appraisal of the academic benefits of the school-breakfast program, according to its authors, a team of researchers from Boston-area universities.

And the data, advocates for children say, should provide a boost for the federal breakfast program.

Fewer Schools Participate

That federal entitlement program has been overshadowed by the National School Lunch Program, they note. Many schools, they say, have resisted offering breakfast, because of concerns over costs and a belief that it is far more difficult than lunch to schedule and serve.

Nationally, some 37,000 public and private schools serve breakfast to 3.6 million children each day. In contrast, about 90,000 public and private schools serve federally subsidized lunches to 24 million children.

The new study, advocates argue, underscores the need to expand the breakfast program in neighborhoods with large numbers of "at risk'' children.

"If a child comes to school without adequate nutrition, for whatever reason, that child will not be able to learn,'' said Edward Cooney, deputy director of the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington-based advocacy group that is spearheading a national campaign to double by 1990 the number of schools serving a morning meal.

"If the kids are able, and the parents put out a breakfast at home, that's great,'' Mr. Cooney said. "We're concerned about the kids that do not have that capacity.''

"Sometimes low-income families have to chose between feeding the family and paying the rent,'' he added, noting that nearly 90 percent of the children who eat breakfast at school come from families with incomes that qualify them for free or reduced-price meals.

Higher Test Scores

Since 1987, Massachusetts has required that breakfast be offered in all public schools in which at least 40 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia also require morning meals for some students, according to FRAC, as do some school districts; a few other states provide financial incentives to encourage districts to participate.

The new study, conducted by four faculty members from Boston University and a researcher from Tufts University, analyzed the academic performance of 1,023 Lawrence, Mass., elementary-school pupils, one-third of whom participated in the district's breakfast program. Nearly all of the participating children came from families with incomes below 135 percent of the national poverty level, or approximately $14,500.

Lawrence students who had participated in the breakfast program for three months showed average gains of 13.5 percent on standardized achievement tests, the study found. Students who typically did not eat a morning meal had average test-score gains of 11 percent.

"If we can see this difference, although it is small, we don't know what other ramifications could happen'' if low-income students were better nourished, said Alan Meyers, assistant professor of pediatrics at Boston University and one of the researchers.

The federal School Breakfast Program, begun as a pilot project in 1966, became a permanent program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1975. The program is designed to provide one-quarter of a child's recommended daily dietary allowance.

Because it is an entitlement program, the federal government is required to reimburse participating schools for at least a portion of their breakfast costs.

Schools receive 76.25 cents for each free breakfast they serve, 46.25 cents for each reduced-price meal, and 13.5 cents for each breakfast purchased by a child for full price. Schools that serve 40 percent or more free or reduced-price breakfasts get higher reimbursement rates.

Last year, $453.7 million was appropriated for the reimbursements.

But despite the federal support, participation in the program continues to lag. Some districts contend that the money they receive does not cover the full cost of running the program.

"Districts are not in the position of subsidizing the program from other sources,'' said Maria Balakshin, director of the child-nutrition and food-distribution division in the California Department of Education.

Moreover, added Mr. Cooney, some districts are reluctant to participate because they feel that the program may be more vulnerable to federal budget cuts than the more popular school-lunch program. Following a reduction in the breakfast program's budget in 1981, he said, the participation rate fell by 12.4 percent.

Officials in other districts argue that there is too little time between the arrival of school buses and the first class period to serve breakfast.

"How early in the morning can you expect a child to get on a bus and be bused for breakfast?'' asked Virginia B. Whitlatch, supervisor of food services for Washington State's education department. "And a small child takes a long time to eat.''

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