The earliest hours of the school day can be the hardest, especially for kids. They can be cranky, their brains aren’t yet engaged, and they tend to misbehave. It can seem as though they don’t really wake up until they eat and get a little exercise.

So that is why a four-decade-old, federally subsidized program that offers cheap, nutritional breakfasts at public schools across the country can claim to make mornings more wholesome, manageable and productive for children. It bolsters the adage that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

And yet a lot of children are going hungry. Few kids eat the breakfasts that are being prepared for them — a shortfall that has prompted national campaigns to boost participation in the morning program, particularly among low-income students who already qualify for free or reduced-price meals at lunch-time.

“Where and when (school breakfast) is being offered, it’s not the most convenient or conducive to people actually participating,” said Kumar Chandran of the Washington, D.C.-based No Kid Hungry campaign.

The problem is especially pronounced in Hawaii where most students from low-income families don’t participate in the breakfast program, and their ranks are steadily shrinking, leaving Hawaii as one of America’s nutrition laggards on the poor children’s breakfast front.

Just five years ago, Hawaii ranked 24th in the participation of children in the U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded school breakfast program. Today 45 states and the District of Colombia feed a larger percentage of their children, according to a Food Research and Action Center report.

During the 2011-12 school year, national participation was over 50 percent, but in Hawaii it was just 40 percent – a decline of 5 percent in just five years.

The Breakfast Club

The school breakfast program offers a simple solution to a complex set of problems. It costs the state very little money, and for the kids who participate, data shows that the program — which, like the lunch program, offers free and reduced-price meals to those who qualify — has a myriad of nutritional, behavioral and academic benefits, including reductions in child hunger and obesity, and improvement in test scores and classroom discipline.

Research also links school breakfast participation with higher attendance and lower tardiness rates. For example, a recent study shows that schools with increased breakfast participation saw the proportion of chronically tardy children decrease by 67 percent.

The Hawaii Department of Education says it’s working to get more kids to take advantage of the school breakfast program. Schools encourage parents to bring their children to school earlier in the morning, coordinate their breakfast and school bus schedules, and emphasize to parents and students how important it is to eat a nutritional breakfast every morning, according to DOE spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz.

But exactly why participation has remained so low and continues to decrease is unclear. Experts point to factors such as people’s lack of awareness of the program and associations that some people have linking school breakfasts with poverty.

Meantime, Dela Cruz in part attributed Hawaii’s weak breakfast participation to changing local and federal nutrition requirements that strictly define what constitutes a balanced diet. “Some students may not necessarily like these options,” the DOE spokeswoman said in an email, noting that U.S. Department of Agriculture menu requirements prohibit local favorites, like fried rice.

Saved by the Bell

Advocates say the department should revamp how it administers the federal entitlement program, starting with an increasingly popular strategy in which schools include breakfast as part of their set daily schedules.

The Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice is partnering with the DOE this coming school year to pilot the so-called “Breakfast After the Bell” model at several high-poverty schools across the state. Free school breakfast will be served to all students in the school through traditional federal subsidies, as well as an $85,000 grant from the Legislature and a $65,000 grant from the Walmart Foundation that are helping to offset the costs of equipment, staff and meals for the few kids who don’t qualify for meal discounts.

About 52 percent of the state’s public school students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Eligibility guidelines change each year and are based on a scale that looks at family size and income. This upcoming school year, incomes for families of four in Hawaii must be less than $35,200 for free school lunches or $50,100 for reduced-price meals.

The state provides some of the funding, but the U.S. agriculture department reimburses the DOE a certain amount for each breakfast served. Hawaii receives about $900,000 each month in federal funding for the breakfast program, which costs about $1 per breakfast for students at regular price and 30 cents at the reduced price. “The funding is there as long as they (the students) choose to participate,” Chandran said.

The fact that the meals bring in federal dollars, advocates say, is even more reason to increase school breakfast participation. The Hawaii Appleseed Center estimates that the state would get an additional $2.4 million in annual federal funding if Hawaii schools increased low-income school breakfast participation to 60 percent.

“You’re not only feeding more kids, you’re also churning the economic pump to make a lot more economic vitality in Hawaii,” said the center’s executive director Victor Geminiani.

In the Appleseed Center’s “Breakfast After the Bell” model, the school bell that signals the beginning of school typically rings 15 or so minutes earlier than normal. Breakfast is then served in classrooms or in the cafeteria while teachers take attendance, collect homework, and make announcements.

Chandran said the “Breakfast After the Bell” model has been adopted in at least one school in most states. New Mexico and Colorado are among those that have even passed laws that require schools with high percentages of low-income students to implement innovative breakfast models.

The Hawaii Appleseed Center pilot is being rolled out and tested in as many as five public schools across the state beginning this fall to see if it is effective and to determine whether the increased breakfast participation has a positive impact on students’ academic performance. It’ll also include significant outreach efforts to educate parents and the community about the program and child nutrition.

Two schools have already signed up for the pilot: Linapuni and Kaala elementary schools, where roughly 94 percent and 84 percent of the students are low-income, respectively.

But Geminiani emphasized that every student, regardless of his or her family income, will get free breakfast in the initiative — a strategy that he said would not only significantly boost participation rates but also streamline the program and remove any stigma that goes with a free meal.

The new model, he said, does away with many of the cumbersome application and tracking requirements because the meals will be served across the board.

“It takes care of a problem that most of us are grappling with,” Geminiani said. “How do you feed our kids in high-poverty communities well enough to get their brains formulated in a way that they can actually be competitive, where you can have an equal society?”

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