A hungry child can’t learn.

The sad reality is that many of Hawaii’s families can’t afford to provide their children with a healthy breakfast every morning. According to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure, which takes into account cost-of-living differences, Hawaii has the 6th highest poverty rate among the states, at 18.4 percent.

Even families who are financially stable often have such busy schedules that they find it challenging to sit down for a good breakfast in the morning. Yet studies show that students who skip breakfast have poorer cognitive functioning.

Students who get a nutritious breakfast are better able to study and learn than students who skip the meal or don't get enough to eat, studies show.

Students who get a nutritious breakfast are better able to study and learn than students who skip the meal or don’t get enough to eat, studies show.

Hawaii Dept. of Education

One sure way to ensure that our children are ready to learn every morning is by participating in the School Breakfast Program. Reams of research have found that when students eat school breakfast, they also have better nutrition and lower rates of obesity, as well as improved attendance, behavior and grades.

Hawaii can do more to take full advantage of the benefits of school breakfast. We rank 46th among the states in school breakfast participation, with less than half (43 percent) of children who participate in free or reduced-price lunch also getting school breakfast. Looking over the past five years, Hawaii has been the only state in the nation to see a decrease in that participation rate.

In contrast, the top two states, West Virginia and New Mexico, have 83 percent and 71 percent, respectively, of their free or reduced-price lunch students also having school breakfast. If Hawaii were to get our rate up to just 70 percent, 18,000 more of our children would be gaining the benefits of school breakfast, and Hawaiʻi would be getting an additional $4.78 million per year in federal funds.

With just over half of Hawaii’s students eligible for free or reduced-price meals, over a quarter of our state’s schools qualify for this community eligibility option.

There are proven ways to boost school breakfast participation. One of the best is moving breakfast after the first bell, either into the classroom, onto grab-and-go carts, or after homeroom. Breakfast after the bell programs are currently in place in over 20 states, in school districts as large as Los Angeles and New York City.

Research has found that these alternative breakfast service models correlate with better achievement test scores, attendance and behavior. Last year, Kona Pacific Public Charter School experienced benefits like these when they implemented a breakfast in the classroom program that led to dramatic increases in the number of students that ate breakfast each day. Other schools need to follow their lead so more students start the day well fed and ready to learn.

Another effective method of increasing school breakfast participation is community eligibility, which allows high-poverty schools to offer breakfast and lunch free of charge to all students, streamlining the process. Not only does this make it easier for students and their families to access meals, but it also helps schools by eliminating the cost and administrative burden of processing school meal applications.

With just over half of Hawaii’s students eligible for free or reduced-price meals, over a quarter of our state’s schools qualify for this community eligibility option. Right now, Hawaii is in the bottom 10 among states using the community eligibility program, but this year, seven Hawaiʻi Department of Education schools are piloting the program. Hawaii should use this year to work out any bugs that might exist in the program, and should rapidly expand its use so that more children have greater access to school meals.

The returns on investing in school breakfast are clear: better academic performance for our children, fewer behavioral problems for our teachers to handle, relief for struggling and busy families in the mornings, and millions more federal dollars coming to our state.

March 7 to 11 is National School Breakfast Week, and schools across the country are celebrating the importance of this program in making sure that  children start their school days ready to learn. Here in Hawaii, we can encourage our schools, the Department of Education and our state house to do all they can to give more of our deserving students access to a good breakfast every morning at school.

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