DCPS Leads in School Breakfast Programs

Dorothy Rowley | 3/21/2012, 10:19 p.m.

Two years ago, the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) system ranked No. 20 among the nation's districts that provide free breakfasts to low-income students.

However, by the end of January 2012, DCPS had achieved the No. 1 spot, leading D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) to declare that the District has set the pace for school breakfast programs across the country.

"Our efforts to improve the health of our children means we are not only feeding their stomachs well, but also their minds in order to boost performance in the classroom," Cheh, author of the Council's Healthy Schools Act of 2010, said of the accomplishment. "We will continue to fight and legislate on their behalf, as D.C. students set the standard for the nation in healthy eating."

According to the anti-hunger group, Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), which issues the annual School Breakfast Scorecard, several organizations -- including the Walmart Foundation -- support the program.

FRAC reported that the Walmart Foundation provided a $400,000 grant for the local initiative, and that during the 2010-11 academic year, 64 percent of the District's low income students participated in the free breakfast program.

Overall, the program -- for which nearly all of Ward 8's students are eligible -- has seen a 32 percent increase in participation since 2010.

While Cheh's legislation has replaced many of the previous offerings on the schools' menus with healthier selections, D.C. has become "the first city to legislate breakfast in the classroom" in schools where at least 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

Council Chairman Kwame Brown said the city was proud of its accomplishment.

"We not only have provided the program, but the District has made it a priority because breakfast is the most important meal of the day," Brown said. "For a child to get a healthy start to their day makes a big difference."

Brown noted that in comparison to the city's other wards, students in Ward 8 definitely qualify. "That's where we have a large pocket of low-income families and, as a result, where most of [the city's public school] students taking advantage of free, nutritional breakfasts [live,]" said Brown.

A survey of the 2010-11 school year showed that student participation in the national School Breakfast Program grew to include 9.8 million low-income children. That growth subsequently accounted for an increase of 354,000 low-income children in the program over the previous school year, according to FRAC.

Meanwhile, studies have found that many students fail to eat a nutritious breakfast for various reasons. Sometimes their families are living on tight budgets and can't afford the meals. In other instances, students skip breakfast at home due to long commutes to school.

DC Hunger Solutions spokesperson Alexandra Ashbrook said providing breakfast for both the city's public and charter facilities is a win-win situation. Mainly because eating breakfast at school improves academic performance and attendance. Breakfast at school also cuts down on tardiness. Ashbrook hailed Cheh's legislation as a good example of school meals advocacy.

"Not only do [these kinds of] efforts get kids the nutrition they need to succeed at school, they also help bring in federal funding for schools to serve breakfast," said Ashbrook. "Passage of the Healthy Schools Act has been one of the most exciting things in Washington, D. C., because it's not only for poor children, but for all kids to make sure they have access to the most important meal of the day."