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Participation in School-Breakfast Program Jumps 8.9 Percent

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WASHINGTON--The number of schools participating in the federal school-breakfast program jumped 8.9 percent this fiscal year--the biggest increase in 13 years--due to a sluggish economy and stepped-up efforts to sign up schools, a research and advocacy group reported last week.

Moreover, the number of low-income students receiving subsidized breakfasts rose 12.7 percent over last year.

According to the "School Breakfast Scorecard,'' released at a press conference here by the Food Research and Action Center, more than 4.16 million children in 47,627 schools now receive free or reduced-price breakfasts under the program.

Last fiscal year, 3.7 million students at 43,717 schools received subsidized breakfasts.

School participation is at an "all-time high,'' the report says, noting that 53.5 percent of the 88,986 schools participating in the U.S. Agriculture Department's school-lunch program now also offer breakfast.

The number of schools enrolled in the breakfast program has risen by 6,000 since 1989, the report says.

"Families hard hit by the recession are thankful when school-breakfast programs are available to help stretch household budgets,'' said Robert J. Fersh, FRAC's executive director.

Studies have shown that eating a nutritious breakfast significantly improves a student's attentiveness and standardized-test scores and reduces absenteeism, said Amy Sampson, a nutritionist at Tufts University.

"Hunger in the morning leaves children cranky and lethargic, and teachers will tell you that hungry kids can't learn,'' said Michele Tingling-Clemmons, the FRAC scorecard's coordinator.

Some Schools Balk

Any public or nonprofit private school is eligible to participate in the entitlement program, but 41,000 schools do not because they either are not aware of the benefits, cannot afford startup costs, or perceive the application procedure as too cumbersome, Ms. Tingling-Clemmons said.

Some schools say bus schedules do not allow time for breakfast, while other schools still consider breakfast a family obligation, she added.

"The days of 'Ozzie and Harriet' are over,'' said Ms. Tingling-Clemmons, adding that many families do not have time to provide a nutritious breakfast for their children at home.

"It is our goal to make sure that a morning meal is available to them,'' she said.

A breakfast in the program consists of one serving each of milk, a fruit or vegetable, a bread or cereal, and a meat, poultry, or fish.

Despite increased participation, advocates say, more needs to be done.

Low-income children are suffering the most, Marian Wright Edelman, the president of the Children's Defense Fund, said in a statement.

"We are concerned because low-income students are the ones that benefit the most from a breakfast program,'' Ms. Edelman said. "Yet, only one out of three low-income students who receive a school lunch also receives a school breakfast.''

Since 1990, the Agriculture Department has provided grants to states to fund new breakfast programs. This year, the department awarded $5 million to 27 states under the program, said Darlene Barnes, a spokeswoman for the department.

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