National participation in the School Breakfast Program grew to include 8.8 million children last year.

In a study released by the Food Research and Action Center, national participation in the School Breakfast Program grew to include 8.8 million children during the 2008-2009 school year. This represents increase of 520,000 children over the previous school year and the largest increase since the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) began tracking participation in 1991.

The three top participating school districts, by ranking were:
1. Newark (NJ) Public Schools
2. Columbus City Schools (CCS)
3. Boston (Mass.) Public Schools

All operated programs that served breakfast in the classroom at no charge to the students in many or all schools. Almost three in four Columbus City Schools students are eligible for the Federal Free and Reduced-price Lunch Program. Columbus City Schools began the universal breakfast program with the 2005-2006 school year.

The study also found that higher rates of breakfast participation were achieved by school districts, such as Columbus, that offered free breakfast to all students in creative ways such as serving in the classroom as an option rather than in the cafeteria, or offering bagged "grab and go" breakfasts from carts in the school entryway.

"Research shows that students who eat a nutritious breakfast have fewer visits to the school nurse, fewer absences, lower rates of tardiness, higher retention rates of materials taught, and increases in math and reading test scores and overall grades," said CCS Food Service Director Joe Brown. He adds that increased participation in the breakfast program not only allows more students to have a nutritious start to their school day, it also assists the district by increasing federal reimbursement, allowing more general fund dollars to be used for items directly supporting instruction.

Parents and guardians may to apply for meal benefits any time during the school year, but they are encouraged to apply as close to the beginning of the school year as possible.

If a household was not eligible at that time, but today the household size has increased or the income has decreased because of unemployment or other reasons, an adult family member should contact the student's school to file a new application, in case eligibility status has changed.

FRAC measures School Breakfast Program participation by comparing the number of low-income children receiving school breakfast to the number of such children receiving school lunch. FRAC also sets a participation goal for states and cities to achieve. The full report, School Breakfast Scorecard, is available at www.frac.org/pdf/breakfast09.pdf.