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Expand Access to School Breakfasts

Providing free breakfasts to every student in America who now receives school lunches would eliminate the stigma and paperwork associated with the three eligibility categories.

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Research proves that children who eat breakfast at school have higher test scores, fewer school nurse visits, act up less in class, and may even suffer less frequently from obesity. Yet daily school breakfast participation nationwide is only 36 percent of school lunch participation. Many suburban and rural schools don’t even serve breakfast. Even when it is served it is often too early or too late, making it impractical for students to eat.

Providing free breakfasts to every student in America who now receives school lunches would eliminate the stigma and paperwork associated with the three eligibility categories. It would cost an additional $7.0 billion per year, which is far less than the $28 billion per year our nation loses as a result of child hunger. The nation faces budget constraints, however, and many Americans would like most government resources to focus on families and neighborhoods with the greatest need. A sensible compromise would be to provide a free, universal, nutritious breakfast to every student in Title I schools—the lowest-income schools where at least 40 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals. Doing so would cost about $3.6 billion and improve the nutrition of 17 million of the nation’s poorest students.

If paperwork was simultaneously eliminated for school lunches and eligibility was instead determined using U.S. Census data—which taxpayers already pay to collect—the nation would roughly save about $1 billion annually. This would make the estimated net price to the nation for fighting child hunger $2.6 billion annually—a mere sliver of the at least $28 billion that child hunger costs America in health care, lost productivity, education system impacts, and charity system outlays each year.

True, much of the estimated $1 billion bureaucracy-reduction savings would not benefit the federal government, and the federal government would need to pay the full costs of the breakfast program expansion. But since the rest of the savings would be state and local such savings would indeed benefit all taxpayers. This will allow many schools and districts to reallocate time and resources to other needs that are more important than paperwork such as making meals healthier or actual instruction.

Clearly, ending child hunger as one of the first steps toward cutting poverty in half in 10 years is a smart economic investment.

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