More outreach touting the benefits of students having full tummies in the morning and a jump-start on a new state law pushed Colorado to rank second in the nation for growth in participation of the School Breakfast Program, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Statistics the federal program released in January show that between fiscal years 2008 and 2013, Colorado saw average annual growth of 9.8 percent. That's more than double the national average of 4 percent a year and just below the top-ranking Washington, D.C., which had 11.2 percent average annual growth.
The numbers in Colorado are significant, said Kevin Concannon, undersecretary for the USDA's Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services.
"I find them encouraging because it shows a growing recognition on the importance of nutrition as an adjunct to learning and healthy growth," he said this week in a phone interview from Washington, D.C.
In 2010, 105,000 students in Colorado were taking advantage of the School Breakfast Program, a federally subsidized meal program for public and nonprofit private schools that started in 1966. As of January, 149,063 students in Colorado were participating.
Schools have increased efforts to get the word out about the availability and benefits of breakfast, following the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, said Amanda Mercer, a program specialist in the state Department of Education's school nutrition office.
The law set requirements for conducting outreach on the School Breakfast Program, including to parents, staff and students. Also, state agencies and partner organizations have teamed up to do outreach, training and resources, she said.
Nationally, from November 2010 to November 2013, the number of children having breakfast at school in the U.S. jumped from just over 10 million to 13.6 million, Concannon said.
Typically, students who eat breakfast are more likely to do well in school, he said.
"Teachers are saying fewer kids are having to get up and leave the class with headaches or stomachaches or are falling asleep or are restless - the four basic symptoms of kids who haven't had breakfast," he said.
Mercer said the benefits are noticeable.
"Studies have shown that when students are well-nourished and ready to learn, they may also have more potential for academic success," she said.
Schools are trying new methods, Concannon said, another reason for improved participation. For example, many now are serving breakfast in the classroom at the beginning of the school day, instead of in the cafeteria or gym before school starts.
That approach works better with bus schedules, he said, and dining logistics.
Starting in the fall in Colorado, a new Breakfast After the Bell Nutrition Program takes effect, requiring schools to provide breakfast after the school day begins if at least 80 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
After the first year of operation, mandatory participation will be for schools that have 70 percent impoverished students.
But some already have instituted the practice, including Calhan School District RJ1, which offers free breakfast to all students.
According to Calhan Elementary School Principal Linda Slothower, tardy marks have dropped 23 percent, and there has been improvement in test scores, behavior and attention span.
"The kids have more energy and are happy to come to school," said Heather Campbell, a third-grade teacher.
The program will be funded by state and federal money and is expected to cost $14.6 million per year. An estimated 242 schools in the state are expected to participate, resulting in an additional 43,829 students. Most will be eligible to receive the meal for free or at a reduced price.
The federal government spent $3.5 billion on the School Breakfast Program in fiscal year 2013, of which Colorado received $38.8 million.
Nearly all of the public schools in the country participate in the school lunch and breakfast programs and half of private and parochial schools, he said. There are about 100,000 schools in the United States.
"We're serving healthy food to kids, and we're discovering creative ways to help achieve that goal," Concannon said. "I view it as support of the mission to the school to educate kids as they grow."