If breakfast really is the most important meal of the day, than many low-income Monroe County School District students are missing out -- big time.
That's according to a recent joint report by the national Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) and Florida Impact, a state anti-hunger and anti-poverty association, that found that for every 100 county students who are served a federally subsidized lunch, only 41.9 took part in the companion School Breakfast Program.
That statistic places the county 55 out of the 67 counties in the state in terms of low-income student participation. The state average participation rate was 46.9:100, up from 45.5:100, in the previous year.
Not only that, but had Monroe reached the report authors' goal of a 70:100 ratio, "796 additional Monroe County children would have received breakfast each day and the county could have gained more than $196,000 in additional federal resources," the report stated.
The study references information from the 2011-12 school year.
While agreeing that higher student participation in the School Breakfast Program is an admirable goal, district Food Services Supervisor Deb Stecklan pointed out that it's up to parents to decide where their children eat their first meal of the day.
"They (the study's authors) like to comment on an ideal situation," Stecklan said. "But the fact is that we still have parental rights. I believe that every child performs better by eating breakfast, but many families elect to feed their children at home. For children who elect to eat at school, we give them a good way to start the day."
The School Breakfast Program is federally funded, and administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At the state level, it is operated by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
All public elementary schools in the state must operate school breakfast programs. Schools with 80 percent or more students certified for free and/or reduced price meals are also required to offer "universal" breakfast, free to all students, and must, to the extent possible, make the meal available to pupils at an alternative location outside the cafeteria.
Currently, students from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for free school meals. Pupils from families with incomes between 130 and 185 percent of the federal poverty level qualify for reduced-price meals, and can be charged no more than 30 cents per breakfast. And schoolgoers from families with incomes above 185 percent of the federal poverty level pay charges (referred to as "paid meals") which are set by the school, but are partially reimbursed by the federal government.
At the moment, "paid meals" in Monroe County cost $1.75.
Monroe County children from households participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Program (SNAP, or food stamps), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Head Start, or who are foster children, migrants, homeless, or runaways, are "categorically eligible" for free school meals, without the need for an application.
At Tuesday's School Board meeting in Tavernier, Stecklan gave a presentation in which she discussed proposed nutritional changes to the School Breakfast Program.
"The menu hasn't changed yet," Stecklan said. "But the proposal is to add a lot more fruit and more whole grains. Presently, we do a half a cup of fruit or juice, and that's going to go up to a full cup for the 2014-15 school year."
Among the suggestions made in the FRAC/Florida Impact study is that counties implement "grab and go" options, whereby students may take the "components" of a balanced breakfast from the cafeteria or a kiosk on campus, and eat it on the go.
Stecklan said this hasn't been tried at district schools because "we have enough time for students to enjoy breakfast before school starts."
Though the sequester budget cuts threaten Head Start and other nutrition initiatives for the 2013-14 school year, Stecklan hopes the district will be able to ride out the storm -- for now.
"At this time, it's not impacting our program," Stecklan said. "We do have overall financial issues, but the federal situation is not impacting us at the moment. If the Head Start children are in the school, we'll feed them."