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The Right Start: School Breakfast

Nutrition | September, 17 2013

By: Rachel K. Johnson, PhD, MPH, RD, FAHA, Science Board Member and Bethany A. Yon, PhD

Student athletes in our high schools were fortunate to have breakfast served in the school cafeteria shortly after the School Breakfast Program was made permanent in the 1970’s. Eating a healthy breakfast at school was a great way for those athletes to re-fuel after a morning workout and get ready for the academic day to begin. Since then, the School Breakfast Program has expanded and now feeds nearly 13 million children every day in more than 89,000 schools across the country.

Up to 20 percent of school-age children and 31 percent of adolescents skip breakfast on any given day, thus missing out on the opportunity to start their day with the energy they need to stay focused and be at their best throughout the school day. Many families do not have the time or resources to offer a nutritious breakfast at home. Some children, especially teens, are not ready to eat when they first wake up. Many of us grew up with the old saying “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” For school children, there is some truth to that. Children who eat breakfast tend to perform better academically with better test scores, behavior, and attendance. Children who regularly eat breakfast are also less likely to be overweight and have more adequate nutrient intakes compared to those who skip breakfast. By eating a healthy breakfast of fat-free or low-fat milk, fruit and whole-grain cereal or toast, students consume more of several shortfall nutrients such as calcium, potassium, dietary fiber and folate.

Thanks to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the School Breakfast Program will see some changes this Fall. Similar to the changes made to the National School Lunch Program in the Fall of 2012, breakfasts will be planned with calorie contents that are age-appropriate. Calorie ranges for specific age and grade groups have been set, replacing the previous meal standards that only had calorie minimums (but no maximum). The new calorie maximums ensure that children have the energy they need to learn in class while reducing their risk for obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases. More whole-grain rich foods will be on the menu and once those minimum requirements have been served, schools may choose to serve more protein and meat to keep students from feeling hungry during the day. Next school year, similar to lunch, children will be required to select a fruit or vegetable which will be served in larger portions.

To make it easier and more convenient for students to eat at school, school breakfast is moving out of the cafeteria. More elementary schools are offering breakfast in the classroom as children settle in for their day. For middle and high school students, offering breakfast from ‘grab ‘n go’ carts in the cafeteria or hallway make it easy to pick up breakfast from several different sites in school.  Some high schools are trying vending machines as a new way to offer a healthy breakfast to students on the go.

Starting the day with a healthy breakfast can help students stay focused in school, and be their best. For busy families facing the morning time crunch, check out what your school is serving up for breakfast. School breakfast is the right start for the day!

Dr. Johnson and Dr. Yon work within the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences at the University of Vermont. 

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