Schools Filling More Stomachs to Better Fill Young Minds

This commentary appeared in the Austin American-Statesman.

When I’m reading a report on school nutrition or preparing testimony for a legislative hearing, I don't get very far on an empty stomach. My concentration starts to go, and before long I have to look for a snack or reach for my lunch.

Too many students have experienced a similar challenge, trying to understand the Pythagorean Theorem or learn to read on an empty stomach without the option of pausing to eat. About a quarter of Texas children are considered "food insecure,” meaning their families might not know where their next meal will come from.

But, starting this year, more Texas public schools will make sure students fill their stomachs before they try to fill their minds.

Thanks to Senate Bill 376, passed last year by a group of Republican and Democratic state legislators, Texas public schools now will provide free breakfast to all their students if at least 80 percent of the student body qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch and breakfast.

By opening it up to all students, these schools reduce the stigma of school breakfast and encourage more eligible kids to grab a hard-boiled egg, yogurt and a banana before heading to class. Eliminating red tape benefits schools too. When they offer breakfast to all students, schools save money or break even by increasing participation and eliminating certain costly reporting requirements.

A school board can request a waiver from the program, but don’t look for many to do so. They’ve seen first hand that sometimes a nutritious meal can boost academic performance more effectively than a new tutor, improved curriculum or other academic strategies.

I recently asked Dora Rivas from the Dallas school district about their new breakfast program, which they started before the new law kicked in.

"Principals and teachers often tell me how students are more able to focus and be more attentive during class now that we implemented the Breakfast in the Classroom program,” she said. "It is very evident that the BIC program at Dallas ISD has benefited our students nutritionally and given them the academic advantage to perform better in the classroom.”

School districts also have a wealth of research to draw on in addition to their anecdotal experiences. Studies show that when children eat breakfast, they are more likely to pay attention in class. They do a better job of sitting still. And they are more likely to stay focused on learning.

One study of more than 10,000 kindergarten and third-grade children, for example, found significant delays in reading and mathematical skill development among food-insecure children compared to their peers. Children from food-insecure households also experience poorer health, more depression and greater fatigue.

In February, the American-Statesman reported that the Austin school district lagged behind other districts in providing federally funded free breakfast to poor students. Thanks to this new law, Austin can improve participation and help combat food insecurity by providing children with one more nutritious meal they can rely on.

For years, school administrators have served a big breakfast to children on the morning of state tests. They knew hungry kids didn’t stand a chance on the TAKS or STAAR tests. Now students won’t have to wait until test day to have the nutrition they need to excel in the classroom.

Dimitry is the health and fitness policy associate for Texans Care for Children.