Last Friday, I celebrated School Breakfast Week with a lively group of students at William H. Hunter Elementary School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I was joined by the Philadelphia Superintendent of Schools and various state officials as I participated in an event which emphasized the important role of the USDA School Breakfast Program in fostering a healthier next generation. This year's celebration was extra special, with news that total program participation grew by more than 24 percent nationwide over the last six years. Nearly 14 million of our nation's school children are now eating school breakfast each day.
Here's why that's so important: A well-balanced breakfast offers an important nutritional foundation for a productive and healthy day, at any age. School breakfast fosters success in the classroom, and also plays a critical role in helping children develop healthy habits that last a lifetime.
Research supports these claims. Studies show that students who eat breakfast do better on standardized tests, pay attention and behave better in class, and are less frequently tardy, absent or sent to the nurse's office. Further, children who eat a healthy breakfast are more likely to maintain a healthy weight and avoid the health problems associated with obesity. As I have visited schools around the country during my tenure at USDA, I have heard countless stories and have witnessed firsthand the positive difference that a healthy breakfast can make in a child's day. School nurses are among the most enthusiastic champions for the program.
It's important to note that not all children are able to eat breakfast at home. Whether they come from a family with a tight budget, are too busy in the morning rush, or simply have a poor appetite when they wake up, not all children get the energy and nutrients they need for a healthy start to the school day before they leave home.
Through the School Breakfast Program, children of all economic backgrounds can receive a healthy meal consistent with the latest nutrition science and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The program is designed to benefit every student in every community, but of course the benefits are amplified in disadvantaged communities where access to healthy foods may be a struggle for many families. In fact, just last month, we announced that our community eligibility provision, which gives schools with a large percentage of low-income students the flexibility to serve free breakfast and lunch to all students, would be available in all states for the next school year. This program reduces the paperwork and administrative burden for the schools, while increasing access to healthy breakfasts for low income students.
I am proud of our nation's schools, and the creative thinking their leaders have demonstrated in implementing breakfast programs with minimal disruption to the school day. Some schools offer options such as grab-and-go kiosks, so children can pick up their meals as they enter the building. Breakfast in the classroom is another growing practice that has proven popular among both students and teachers, as breakfast is seamlessly woven into the morning routine.
As we honor School Breakfast Week and look toward the future, I challenge school districts to continue looking for creative ways to ensure that children are receiving the healthiest start to the day, and encourage families to choose the School Breakfast Program for their children. Together, let's ensure that our future leaders have the healthiest start to their day -- every day.