A Guide to the School Breakfast Program


The School Breakfast Program is a federally funded meal program that provides free and reduced price meals to low-income students across the country. Begun as a pilot in 1966, today 11.6 million students receive a nutritious breakfast each day through the program. Schools are expanding breakfast service, inspiring businesses, nonprofits and other public-private partnerships to join the mission of feeding children across the United States.

How It Works

Much like the National School Lunch Program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reimburses schools for each breakfast they serve, with higher reimbursements for reduced and free meals. Participating schools must offer free or reduced price breakfasts to eligible children and meals must meet federal nutrition guidelines. Children from families with incomes under 130 percent of the federal poverty level receive free meals and children from families between 130-185 percent pay 30 cents or less. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 included new meal and nutritional standards for the 2012-13 school year. The requirements are phased in gradually, with many of the requirements for breakfast coming in 2013/14. The act includes a 6 cent reimbursement increase per meal as schools change their menus.

Benefits of School Breakfast

The Economic Research Service of the USDA found that children from low-income households or with parents leaving for work in the morning used the program the most. Those with access to school breakfast were more likely to eat breakfast in the morning. Along with improving school attendance, studies conclude  children who eat school breakfast have improved standardized test scores.1 If a school breakfast program begins offering universal free school breakfast, children who participate more often show greater improvement over students at the same school who do not. Students who eat school breakfast have improved math scores, attendance, punctuality, and decreased anxiety, depression and hyperactivity.

Implementing School Breakfast Programs

School breakfast has the same eligibility criteria as school lunch, but fewer than half of lunch participants eat school breakfast. School administrators, janitors and teachers may wonder about space, staff and time to serve breakfast. Yet many schools have found ways to make the program work.

Expanding Breakfast: Universal Breakfast

Schools with high rates of free or reduced-price eligible students have the option of offering universal breakfast and providing meals to all students at no charge. For children and families, this means decreased stigma associated with school breakfast. For schools, the option reduces overhead costs, increases program participation and can pay for itself as reimbursement increases along with participation. For example, Mingo County, W.V., is one of six counties in the state that served free breakfast to all students in 2011-12. The number of students eating breakfast at school increased 118 percent. According to the director of the State Office of Child Nutrition, “Most West Virginia counties can make universal breakfast break even.” 2 Mingo County garnered $186,000 in additional federal reimbursement with universal breakfast.

Universal Breakfast Options: Breakfast in the Classroom and Grab ’N’ Go

Breakfast in the classroom allows students to eat together in the classroom at the start of the day. During the 10 to 15 minutes it takes for students to eat, teachers take attendance, gather homework and make announcements.

Grab ’N’ Go breakfasts are prepared breakfast bags that students pick up before or between class. This program allows for maximum flexibility for schools and students. Some set up carts for students as they get off the bus.

In 2011, the Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom—formed by the Food Research and Action Center, National Association of Elementary School Principals Foundation, National Education Council Health Information Network and the School Nutrition Foundation—launched a $3 million campaign funded by Walmart to promote breakfast in the classroom. In five participating school districts in Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida and Maryland, students benefit from universal breakfasts in the classroom. The success of such programs spurs other schools to adopt the model.

Lower participation and the importance of breakfast to learning has inspired efforts to raise awareness, decrease stigma and promote the program. The School Nutrition Association and General Mills created the “School Breakfast—Go for Gold” campaign, which culminated during National School Breakfast week in March 2012. The initiative highlights how eating a healthy, balanced breakfast at school helps students excel. The program also makes sense in a tight budget climate. Research by public-private partnership Hunger Free Minnesota showed the state was missing out on $48 million in breakfast reimbursement during the 2010-11 school year. By implementing universal breakfast options, they are closing the meal gap in the state and bringing in additional federal money.

Role of State Legislators in School Breakfast

Many states have passed laws encouraging schools to participate in the program. Florida, West Virginia and  Maine among others require all schools to serve breakfast. Other states, such as  Illinois, Washington and Texas require schools with a certain percentage of students eligible for free or reduced price lunches to offer breakfast. Other states fund starting or expanding breakfast such as New Mexico, which paid for  universal breakfast at low-performing elementary schools.

Beyond passing legislation, legislators can also play the role of convener for concerned citizens, interested members of the business community, nonprofits and other community leaders. To learn more, visit the following resources and be in touch with NCSL’s Hunger Partnership to learn how to get involved in addressing hunger in the United States.

[1] Murphy JM. “Breakfast and Learning: An Updated Review.”
Journal of Current Nutrition and Food Science 2007; 3(1): 3-36.
[2] “Better Focus.” Long, Kate. April 9, 2012. The Charleston Gazette

Written by Angelynn Hermes | Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow at NCSL, Washington, D.C.
NCSL Foundation for State Legislatures Hunger Partnership | August 2012