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1 million California children who qualify for free breakfast at school go without

December 11, 2009 | 12:30 pm

More than 1 million low-income California children who receive for free or reduced-price school lunches do not get breakfast at school even though they would qualify, and about a fifth of the schools in the state do not even offer breakfast, according to two reports from the Food Research and Action Center.

California ranked 33rd in low-income-student participation in the School Breakfast Program for 2008-09, the same ranking it received a year earlier. In terms of the number of schools that offer breakfast, California’s ranking fell from 35th to 40th, the Washington-based group said.

In the 2008-09 school year, 8,756 schools that took part in the National School Lunch Program also offered breakfast, compared with 8,922 schools the previous year. Nationally, fewer than half of the eligible children receive breakfast at school, according to the reports released Monday.

In 2008-09, 8.8 million children took part in the breakfast program on an average day; the lunch program served 18.9 million children.

“The program is seriously underutilized,” center president James Weill said Monday.

Children have consistently increased their participation since the early 1990s, but “it’s not across the board, and it’s not fast enough,” Weill said.

“We really think of the School Breakfast Program as a modest miracle of good public policy,” he said.

The program, which began as a pilot project in 1966 and became permanent in 1975, helps alleviate hunger, improves student achievement and reduces levels of absenteeism, the group said. One way to improve participation is to “fit the program to the actual lives of children in schools," Weill said.

"When you serve breakfast only in the cafeteria, 30 to 40 to 50 minutes before school starts, too many kids don’t get there on their school bus or public transportation or they understandably want” to be with their friends rather than in the cafeteria, he said.

Solutions include serving breakfast in class and providing carts from which students can grab a bagged or boxed meal. About 1 million low-income California children took advantage of the breakfast program in 2008-09, compared with 2.4 million for the lunch program, according to the center’s research.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, all schools serve breakfast, and all but 250 of the 711 schools offer a “second-chance” breakfast, which is served during a break, said Laura Benavidez, deputy director in charge of operations for the district’s food services.

The portion of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches is on the rise in this difficult economy, from about 76% a few years ago to 80% to 82% this year, Benavidez said.

In one report, the research group looked at 25 urban school districts. The San Diego Unified School District increased the share of low-income students participating in school breakfast and lunch in 2008-09 to 51.2% from 38.4% the previous year.

L.A. Unified’s gain was 0.9 percentage points, while the Oakland Unified School District’s participation fell by 1.5 percentage points.

In addition to nutrition and hunger issues, the lack of participation in the breakfast program represented a lost opportunity to bring in more federal dollars — because the federal government reimburses the state for meals eaten under the programs, advocates said.

For California, if 60 of every 100 children who ate free or reduced-price lunch also had breakfast, the state would receive nearly $98 million more in federal reimbursements, the food research center said.

-- Mary MacVean

Photo: L.A. Times file