Across California, more students than ever are eligible for free and reduced-price meals at school, but fewer kids are taking advantage of the service — particularly for breakfast.
San Francisco public school officials are trying to address the trend by making it easier for students to get meals.
This school year, some 31,830 of the 55,000 students in the San Francisco Unified School District qualified for free and reduced-price meals. But the district only serves about 23,000 lunches a day at its 120 schools, and only 5,200 breakfasts, according to Zetta Reicker, the assistant director of the SFUSD’s student services.
The lack of participation has ramifications for the district’s budget deficit. Student nutrition services are roughly $3 million in the red.
According to a new analysis of free and reduced-price meals released recently by the Lucile Packard Foundation on Children’s Health, 3.4 million Californians qualify for the program, but only 30 percent eat breakfast at school.
The analysis said breakfast participation is low for two major reasons. One is access, because meals are almost always served in cafeterias, and the other is timing, based on the amount of time kids have before class.
So in an attempt to increase participation and funding for the SFUSD’s meal programs, San Francisco nutrition services officials recently received a federal grant for $109,000 to expand “grab-and-go” breakfasts. The program will set up booths of healthy snacks such as cereal and fresh fruit at building entrances so students will see them when they first arrive at school.
“Students are notoriously late — they’re always rushing to get where they need,” Reicker said. “If they see a booth of food right as they walk in, they may be more enticed to buy it.”
Breakfast menus vary daily and can include a bagel with cream cheese or whole-grain pancakes. All meals contain no trans fat or artificial flavors and minimal sugar. A fresh piece of fruit is provided daily. The total cost per paying student is $1.50.
Parent and student nutrition and physical education committee member Dana Woldow said increasing breakfast participation is necessary, even if it means operating at a deficit.
“In my opinion, we need to accept that, get over it and pay for it,” she said. “The alternative is more hungry and more angry children.”
To qualify for free meals, a family’s income must fall below 130 percent of the poverty line, or $28,665 for a family of four. For reduced-price meals, an income must be below 185 percent of the poverty line, or $40,793 annually.