updated 11/18/2004 5:59:22 PM ET 2004-11-18T22:59:22

Schools are serving up more free or discount breakfasts than ever, but about 6 in 10 eligible students still go without, an advocacy group reported.

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The number of low-income children starting their school days with cereal and milk, a breakfast burrito or something else increased 5.2 percent last year. That was the biggest jump in nine years of growth, according to a study released Thursday by the Food Research and Action Center, which monitors anti-hunger programs.

More than 7 million students received free or discounted morning meals. The children ate in the cafeteria, in the classroom, even on the bus.

The increase came partly because there were more low-income students. But the researchers emphasized more positive changes: More schools joined the breakfast program in the 2003-04 school year — almost 8 in 10 schools now serve the meal — and many that already offered breakfast did a better job promoting it.

USDA seeks to enlarge program
Still, more than 9 million low-income students who participated in the school lunch program did not get a school breakfast. The eligibility requirements are the same.

The Agriculture Department, which expects to spend $1.8 billion on breakfasts by year’s end, is urging schools to expand the program. Advocates point to studies showing that students who eat a healthy breakfast at school are better able to concentrate and learn and less likely to be absent or misbehave. Skipping breakfast is associated with a higher risk of obesity because it encourages overeating later in the day.

“The breakfast program addresses three critical problems in this country — education, obesity and hunger,” said Randy Rosso, lead author of the report.

The Agriculture Department reimburses schools for each free and reduced-price breakfast. Students who do not qualify can buy breakfast, and the schools get a much smaller government subsidy for those meals.

“More and more kids are starting the day off without breakfast regardless of their income level,” Rosso said. That may be because parents are too busy to sit down with their children and students who must rise before daybreak cannot muster an early appetite.

To help them, while erasing any stigma attached to a program for the poor, at least 40 states have some schools or districts that offer free breakfast to every student.

Breakfast programs vary widely. The states with the highest participation rates were Oregon and West Virginia, which each enrolled 56 breakfast students for every 100 eating free or discount lunches.

Low-income students were least likely to eat breakfast in Wisconsin, New Jersey, Utah and Illinois, each of which served fewer than 30 students for every 100 receiving lunch aid.

Under federal rules, breakfast and lunch are free to children from homes with annual incomes of up to $23,920 for families of four and discounted for children with families income of up to $34,040 for four.

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