ALBANY -- Less than a third of students in New York who qualified last year for free or reduced-price school breakfast received them, according to a new report.
The report from Hunger Solutions New York knocked New York's low-participation rate, which put the state 42nd in the nation in providing students with free or reduced-price breakfast.
Sixty-three percent of students in New York were eligible for free or reduced-price breakfast in New York last school year, but just 30 percent of them participated.
That means that out of 1.6 million students who could participate in the program, about 484,000 kids did so, the report said.
The ratio fell well short of the goals set by advocacy groups -- which aim to get schools to have 70 percent of eligible students having breakfast at school.
If New York met that goal, about 739,000 students would be eating breakfast at school each morning -- which would help their health and learning, the advocates said.
Nationwide, the average was a 56 percent participation rate.
"Mounting evidence shows that school breakfast plays a key role in supporting the well-being of children by alleviating food insecurity and improving health and educational outcomes," the Albany-based group said.
Why so low?
The two main reasons for the low participation rate are a lack of access and a stigma around eating breakfast at school, according to Jessica Pino-Goodspeed, an author of the report.
She explained that while schools may offer free breakfast, it may be before the school day begins in, requiring students to arrive early to get their morning meal.
Solutions include continuing to offer breakfast "after the bell" or offering breakfast in the classroom -- which some states and schools in New York have implemented.
To address the stigma of eating breakfast at school, Pino-Goodspeed suggested schools that have a large number of children eligible for free or reduced meals offer breakfast at low cost to all its students.
To do that, districts can take advantage of federal provisions that allow schools to provide free breakfast to all children regardless of income, she said.
“That really addresses the issue of stigma, which is a big reason of why kids don’t participate. And once it is free for all, it really helps eliminate that perception that breakfast is only for poor kids,” Pino-Goodspeed said.
New York, though, has shown steady improvement -- even as the number of students eligible also climbed.
In the 2007-08 school year, for example, 52 percent of students in New York were eligible, yet just 26 percent participated, the report said.
In fact, New York ranked ninth in the nation for improvement over the last two school years, according to the Food Research & Action Center.
There was a different result when it came to lunch: 66 percent of students eligible ate lunch at New York schools.
But just 46 percent of the students who ate lunch at a free or reduced price also ate breakfast, the state report said.
The income eligibility for free school meals is $31,590 for a family of four. For reduced-priced meals, which can cost as little as 25 cents to the student, the income eligibility is $44,955 for a family of four.
Some schools have had success getting students to participate in the program.
In Monroe County, two Rochester charter schools -- Monroe Urban Choice Charter School and the Discovery Charter School -- had participation rates of 94 percent and 86 percent, respectively.
But the city of Rochester schools had 55 percent of students eating breakfast there -- even though all of its students were eligible, the report said.
Rates varied in other parts of New York.
In the Vestal schools in the Southern Tier, for example, 29 percent of the students eligible for the program participated, while 60 percent did in Steuben County’s Bradford schools.
Some of the lowest rates were found in the Hudson Valley.
In Dutchess County, 96 percent of Poughkeepsie students were eligible for free or reduced breakfast -- yet just half of them ate breakfast, the report said. Still, that's an increase from 37 percent who did so in the 2014-15 school year.
In Yonkers, just 17 percent of eligible students got free or reduced-price breakfast, even those 68 percent of all students were eligible.
In Peekskill, where the largest percentage of students were eligible in Westchester County, just 22 percent of the 79 percent of students eligible in the district participated, the report said.
"Grab and Go"
Newburgh, one of the poorest districts in the state, was highlighted in the report as boosting the popularity of breakfast.
Two years ago, it started making breakfast available during the morning in the classroom for all its nine elementary schools.
For grades six to eight, it started a "grab and go breakfast" program through kiosks and in the cafeteria. At its high schools, the district also had a "Second Chance Breakfast" by extending breakfast service through third period.
“The trick in high school is offering multiple venues for breakfast, allowing them to take it to the classroom, making it free for everybody,” Caitlin Lazarski, the district’s director of food service, said in the report.
In every district, the meals are the same for all students, regardless of their income, and schools cannot identify students who get free or reduced-price meals.
Students can register for the program through the school.
New York and other states
West Virginia, according to the Food Research & Action Center, had the highest rate of participation in the nation -- with 84 percent of eligible students eating breakfast each day.
There's a reason, the group said: West Virginia is one of four states -- Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico being the others -- who require its some or all of their schools to offer breakfast "after the bell."
The law will take effect next year in Illinois.
Federal funding covers a majority of the cost of school meals for low-income students, but New York's low participation means it didn't get about $71 million available last school year, Hunger Solutions New York said.
The state School Boards Association said it is working on the federal level to increase schools' flexibility related to current health requirements for school meals, which has increased costs.
The group is also seeking an increase in the state's reimbursement for school lunches.
"If districts are going to preserve and promote school meal programs they need adequate resources to provide them," said Al Marlin, a spokesman for the School Boards Association.
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