“The availability of breakfast to all children could be an effective component of school reform to level the academic playing field and address the achievement gap,” which is “substantial and persistent” between white children and their black and Latino peers who disproportionately come from impoverished neighborhoods, Lindsey Turner, director of Boise State University’s Initiative for Healthy Schools, and Frank Chaloupka, director of the Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, write in an editorial published online Nov. 24 in JAMA.
They explain providing breakfast at school to low income students whose families may not be able to afford breakfast “can promote behavioral, cognitive and physical benefits, resulting in improved health and academic outcomes for children.”
Indeed, a study published the same day in JAMA found providing breakfast for free to all children in the classroom improved participation in the school breakfast program and school attendance, which in theory could improve academic performance, although this element was not supported in the results.
Researchers led by Stephanie Anzman-Frasca, a research associate with the Tufts University Child Obesity 180 organization, found that of the 446 public elementary schools in large, urban U.S. districts, those that offered breakfast in the classroom had higher participation rates in the school breakfast program – 73.7% – compared to schools that offered breakfast in other formats, such as in a cafeteria before school, which had an average participation rate of 42.9%.
They explain in the study that providing breakfast in the classroom reduced the stigma some children might feel about qualifying for a free meal and eliminated logistical barriers, such as early transportation to eat in the school cafeteria before class.
The breakfast in the classroom program also was associated with greater overall attendance rates: 95.5% in schools with the program verses 95.3% in those that did not.
Related to attendance, “breakfast programs have also reduced tardiness, another key factor that improves academic outcomes by increasing students’ readiness to learn,” and “could increase connectedness among students, as well as, their teachers,” which is associated with better outcomes, write Turner and Chaloupka. However, the current study did not look at these factors.
Failure to show academic improvement not a strike against breakfast
Given these findings, Anzman-Frasca and colleagues’ failure to replicate previous findings that breakfast improved academic performance “should not be interpreted as a lack of benefit for the breakfast program,” Turner and Chaloupka say.
Anzman-Frasca and her colleagues agree, noting several flaws in their study design could explain why there were no significant differences in the percentage of children who met math and reading benchmarks in standardized tests.
Specifically, they found 57.9% of children at schools with breakfast in the classroom met math benchmarks compared to 57.4% in the schools without the program. Likewise, 44.9% of students at schools with the program met reading benchmarks compared to 44.7% at schools without the program.
The researchers say these results “should be interpreted with caution” because the academic achievement results were not as robust as data for participation and attendance in that it relied on one set of standardized test scores.
In addition, they note, the standardized testing occurred just as participation in the breakfast program peaked so that the long term effects of regular breakfast could not be fully measured yet.
“It is possible that increased attendance may translate into increased academic performance during a longer period or using different measures of achievement,” including test results at the individual student level compared to participation in the breakfast program, they said.
Another confounding factor is “standardized test scores may not reflect the [breakfast in the classroom] impact if there are district-wide efforts to promote school meal consumption on testing days, which is common practice nationwide,” the researchers note.
With this in mind, they encourage additional studies to measure the impact of breakfast programs or academic performance.
In the meantime, schools should continue to promote a “culture that nourishes children physically,” to promote “equitable health and academic outcomes among all children,” say Turner and Chaloupka.