Everyone from President Obama on down is looking for ways to improve our country's schools and raise student achievement. Since March is National Nutrition Month, it's time to propose a simple and obvious solution -- all American children should eat breakfast! Research shows it is nutritionally the most important meal for brain development and scholastic success, and can substantially improve academic performance across the country regardless of regional, ethnic, age and economic disparities.
Missing breakfast has dire consequences in the classroom. It impairs children's ability to learn and leads to a range of deficits that include increased educational, emotional and behavioral problems; lower test scores; and greater hyperactivity, absenteeism and tardiness. Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) has compiled a compelling summary of findings in its "Breakfast for Learning" fact sheet. And it unequivocally notes that eating breakfast vastly improves kids' chances for success.
Still, an unacceptably high number of children miss breakfast. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Foundation found that in America, 42 percent of Caucasian children, 59 percent of African-American children and 42 percent of Hispanic children don't eat breakfast all the time, and 12 percent of Caucasian, 18 percent of African-American and 12 percent of Hispanic children never or rarely eat breakfast.
What is really going on in school?
Let's start with a clear picture of the school landscape in the U.S. and its offerings. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) School Breakfast Program, like the lunch version, was developed to make sure kids do eat breakfast. USDA's 2011 Annual Summary Tables show that 31.8 million children participated in the National School Lunch Program while only 12.19 participated in the School Breakfast Program. And according to FRAC's "School Breakfast Program" fact sheet, more than three out of four schools that serve lunch also serve breakfast. So kids are passing up school breakfast, which shows that the program is underused and ineffective in its current incarnation.
First, offer free breakfast to all American students. Then the number of children participating in the meal rises dramatically, notes FRAC in its "School Breakfast Program" fact sheet.
Second, put breakfast right in every classroom in the country. According to FRAC in its "Breakfast for Learning" fact sheet, participation shoots up again, along with student timeliness and attendance.
Third, give the kids something they like. They like flavored milk and juice. Dairies have improved the profile of flavored milks by reducing its sugar, fat and calorie content. In fact, for this school year, the most common flavored milk is fat-free, chocolate flavored and has only 10 grams of added sugars according to the Milk Processor Education Program, making it lower in sugar than soda, about the same as juice and far more nutritious than both.
But in truth, the answer may be a completely new product. Mandate innovation and it is likely to pay off!
I know this sounds like heresy, but the rule that the 'only' beverage offered at breakfast has to be the USDA-mandated 8 oz. carton of breakfast milk in its current form has to go. Simply put, other milk-based options exist. Encourage the dairy industry to continue to innovate and create other offerings for American children -- such as self-contained, shelf-stable new milk-based products. It can even be 6 oz. and include super charged fruits, or added fiber and vitamins, much like the super-charged breakfast cereals in the grocery aisle. The trend for portable dairy products of this class is growing in Europe with the use of milk products that have added dietary value. This could even help offset the slow decline in milk sales that the industry is experiencing in the United States, as documented in the Milk Producers Council newsletter of 12/30/11, through increased consumption since we will be giving children more appealing options with a stronger nutritional profile.
And this may also sound like heresy, but give American children portable breakfast right in the classroom -- or hand it to them as they enter school. I bet closing the cafeteria for breakfast and vastly simplifying the meal will yield significant savings. Naysayers believe that in-class consumption will distract them, but the impact of going without breakfast is far worse. Take these savings and give more kids breakfast.
So what has to happen?
The U.S. Department of Education needs to get involved and support this agenda, because the USDA needs to think differently and change this one little aspect of the School Breakfast Program.
USDA should not lump breakfast and lunch in the same sentence, paragraph or mandate. Look at breakfast as an opportunity for radical change, with far greater benefits than just providing sustenance to those who can't afford it. Change the 8 oz. milk ordinance and open the field up to innovative new 'milk-based' products. This would give the American dairy industry the flexibility to focus on nutrient delivery that impacts performance and brain development in addition to providing regular milk. A little carton can become all a student may need in the morning -- which will play well with all ages and kids who aren't big on eating when they first get up, busy parents and dieting teens.
Harvard Medical School researcher J. Michael Murphy, EdD, who wrote the watershed analysis on the topic in his paper "Breakfast and Learning: An Updated Review," noted that school breakfast "is a relatively simple intervention that can significantly improve children's academic performance and psychological well-being."
So please, Arne Duncan, give Tom Vilsack at the Department of Agriculture a call and see if he can help get USDA to cut through all the legendary "red tape" quickly. Why does it have to take years to make easy, effective and economical changes that can improve student achievement in America? The USDA needs to open the playing field so the dairy industry can take the lead on innovation.
Bottom line -- put America's children first. This is probably the hardest thing for all to do. The number of groups that have special interest here is long, and ranges from the fruit and grain growers to food processors and manufacturers. This logical change will require strong leadership, a sense of urgency, marked collaboration and good will.
Let's hope we can make it possible for all American children to wake up to a quick and nutritious breakfast they will love to eat.