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School breakfast programs

Evidence Rating

Scientifically Supported

Health Factors

School breakfast programs offer students a nutritious breakfast, often incorporating a variety of healthy and culturally relevant choices. Breakfast can be served in the cafeteria before school starts, from grab and go carts in hallways, or in classrooms as the school day begins. Some schools offer breakfast during a morning break, called second chance breakfast or school brunch (NKH CBP-School breakfast). Schools that participate in the federal School Breakfast Program receive subsidies for each breakfast served. Students from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) are eligible for free breakfast and children from families with incomes between 130 and 185 percent FPL qualify for reduced-cost breakfast; schools are reimbursed at higher rates for free and reduced-cost breakfasts (FRAC-SBP). School participation in the federal program varies by state and region (). Some participating schools offer free breakfast to all students, others only to qualifying students (FRAC-Woo 2015).

Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)

  • Improved cognitive function

  • Increased academic achievement

  • Increased healthy food consumption

Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes

  • Improved nutrition

  • Increased food security

  • Improved weight status

  • Improved student attendance

Evidence of Effectiveness

There is strong evidence that having access to school breakfast programs improves cognition and scholastic achievement, especially among nutritionally deficient or malnourished children (, Hoyland 2009, , Adolphus 2013). Access to school breakfast programs also increases healthy food consumption and can improve breakfast nutrition (, Murphy 2011, Ask 2006, ERS-Fox 2004, ).

School breakfast availability can reduce short-term hunger (Mhurchu 2012), marginal food insecurity, and food-related concerns in low income households (USDA-Bartfeld 2009, Bartfeld 2011, Gundersen 2015). Participation may reduce students’ body mass indexes (BMIs), especially among non-Hispanic white students (), and may reduce weight gain (Ask 2006, ). School breakfast may not significantly alter nutritional intake over the course of a day, however (NBER-Schazenbach 2014, ).

Schools that offer free breakfast for all students, often called universal free breakfast, have been shown to dramatically increase school breakfast participation, especially when breakfast is served in classrooms (, USDA-Bernstein 2004). Universal breakfast also appears to slightly, but significantly, increase servings of fruit and dairy products at breakfast, and reduce cholesterol intake (, ERS-Fox 2004). Universal breakfast and breakfast in classrooms (BIC) appear to increase the portion of kids consuming a nutritionally substantive breakfast (USDA-Bernstein 2004) but may not improve other outcomes more than traditional programs (USDA-Bernstein 2004, , , ).

Longer breakfast periods and adequate breakfast time between bus arrival and the start of class can also increase participation in school breakfast programs (). These programs may improve school attendance; however, additional evidence is needed to confirm this effect (, Hoyland 2009, ).

Overall, skipping breakfast can diminish cognitive performance (). Breakfast consumption improves short-term memory, attention, and cognition (Hoyland 2009). Breakfast consumption is also associated with a reduced risk of becoming overweight or obese and with a reduced BMI among children and adolescents ().  

Impact on Disparities

Likely to decrease disparities

Implementation Examples

In the 2013-2014 school year, the federal School Breakfast Program served approximately 11.2 million low income children on a typical day (FRAC-Woo 2015). Low income children participate in the School Breakfast Program much more than higher income children, and schools that serve mostly low income students are more likely to offer breakfast (). Just over half of the low income children who participated in the National School Lunch Program also participated in the School Breakfast Program in 2013-2014 (FRAC-Woo 2015).

States across the country have enacted legislation to increase access to school breakfast, for example Delaware, Colorado, and New Mexico (NCSL Winterfeld-School breakfast 2014). Other states require all schools to serve breakfast, for example Florida, West Virginia, and Maine. Some states require schools to offer breakfast if a set percentage of their students are eligible for free or reduced price school meals, as in Illinois, Texas, and Washington (NCSL-SBP guide). Nebraska’s state Commissioner of Education has challenged all Nebraska schools to increase school breakfast participation by at least 25% in the 2015-2016 school year, using alternative programs such as grab and go breakfast, breakfast in the classroom, or second chance breakfast (HFH-School breakfast).

In the 2013-2014 school year, reimbursement rates were $1.58 for each free breakfast served, $1.28 for each reduced-cost breakfast, and 28 cents for each full price breakfast. Severe needs schools qualified for an additional 31 cents per free or reduced-cost breakfast served (FRAC-Woo 2015).

Implementation Resources

USDA-SBP - US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food and Nutrition Service (FNS). School Breakfast Program (SBP).

FRAC-SBP - Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). School breakfast program.

NKH CBP-School breakfast - No Kid Hungry Center for Best Practices (NKH CBP). School breakfast.

CDC-Health and academics - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Health and academic achievement. 2014.

USDA-SN training - US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Professional standards for school nutrition professionals: Training and resources.

Citations - Evidence

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

USDA-Bartfeld 2009 - Bartfeld J, Kim M, Ryu JH, Ahn H-M. The School Breakfast Program: Participation and impacts. Washington, DC: US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Economic Research Service (ERS); 2009.

Bartfeld 2010* - Bartfeld J, Kim M. Participation in the School Breakfast Program: New evidence from the ECLS-K. Social Service Review. 2010;84(4):541–62.

Bartfeld 2011 - Bartfeld JS, Ahn H-M. The School Breakfast Program strengthens household food security among low-income households with elementary school children1,2. Journal of Nutrition. 2011;141(3):470–5.

Bhattacharya 2006* - Bhattacharya J, Currie J, Haider SJ. Breakfast of champions? The School Breakfast Program and the nutrition of children and families. Journal of Human Resources. 2006;41(3):445–66.

Gleason 2009* - Gleason PM, Hedley-Dodd A. School breakfast program but not school lunch program participation is associated with lower body mass index. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2009;109(2 Suppl):S118–28.

Hoyland 2009 - Hoyland A, Dye L, Lawton CL. A systematic review of the effect of breakfast on the cognitive performance of children and adolescents. Nutrition Research Reviews. 2009;22(2):220–43.

Basch 2011* - Basch CE. Breakfast and the achievement gap among urban minority group. Journal of School Health. 2011;81(10):635-40.

Mhurchu 2012 - Mhurchu NC, Gorton D, Turley M, et al. Effects of a free school breakfast programme on children's attendance, academic achievement and short-term hunger: Results from a stepped-wedge, cluster randomised controlled trial. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. 2012:6-13.

Crepinsek 2006* - Crepinsek MK, Singh A, Bernstein LS, McLaughlin JE. Dietary effects of universal-free school breakfast: Findings from the evaluation of the school breakfast program pilot project. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2006;106(11):1796-1803.

Murphy 2011 - Murphy S, Moore GF, Tapper K, et al. Free healthy breakfasts in primary schools: A cluster randomised controlled trial of a policy intervention in Wales, UK. Public Health Nutrition. 2011;14(2):219-226.

Ask 2006 - Ask AS, Hernes S, Aarek I, Johannessen G, Haugen M. Changes in dietary pattern in 15 year old adolescents following a 4 month dietary intervention with school breakfast: A pilot study. Nutrition Journal. 2006;5:33.

Adolphus 2013 - Adolphus K, Lawton CL, Dye L. The effects of breakfast on behavior and academic performance in children and adolescents. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2013;7:425.

Rampersaud 2005* - Rampersaud GC, Pereira MA, Girard BL, Adams J, Metzl JD. Breakfast habits, nutritional status, body weight, and academic performance in children and adolescents. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2005;105(5):743-760.

ERS-Fox 2004 - Fox M, Hamilton W, Lin B. Effects of food assistance and nutrition programs on nutrition and health: Volume 4, Executive summary of the literature review. Economic Research Service (ERS), Food Assistance and Nutrition Research Reports. 2004;19(4):1-10.

Millimet 2010* - Millimet DL, Tchernis R, Husain M. School nutrition programs and the incidence of childhood obesity. The Journal of Human Resources. 2010;45(3):640-654.

Gundersen 2015 - Gundersen, C. Food assistance programs and child health. The Future of Children: Policies to Promote Child Health. The Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, The Brookings Institution. 2015:25(1):91-109.

Anzman-Frasca 2015* - Anzman-Frasca S, Djang HC, Halmo MM, Dolan PR, Economos CD. Estimating impacts of a breakfast in the classroom program on school outcomes. JAMA Pediatrics. 2015;169(1):71-77.

Frisvold 2015* - Frisvold DE. Nutrition and cognitive achievement: An evaluation of the School Breakfast Program. Journal of Public Economics. 2015:124:91-104.

Leos-Urbel 2013* - Leos-Urbel J, Schwartz AE, Weinstein M, et al. Not just for poor kids: The impact of universal free school breakfast on meal participation and student outcomes. Economics of Education Review. 2013;36:88-107.

Meyers 1989* - Meyers AF, Sampson AE, Weitzman M, et al. School Breakfast Program and school performance. The American Journal of Diseases of Children. 1989;143:1234-1239.

USDA-Bernstein 2004 - Bernstein LS, McLaughlin JE, Crepinsek MK, et al. Evaluation of the School Breakfast Program pilot project: Final report. Alexandria: Office of Analysis, Nutrition, and Evaluation, Food and Nutrition Service, US Department of Agriculture (USDA); 2004.

NBER-Schazenbach 2014 - Schanzenbach DW, Zaki M. Expanding the school breakfast program: Impacts on children's consumption, nutrition and health. National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). 2014: Working Paper 20308.

Imberman 2014* - Imberman SA, Kugler AD. The effect of providing breakfast in class on student performance. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. 2014;33(3):669-699.

Citations - Implementation Examples

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

Bartfeld 2010* - Bartfeld J, Kim M. Participation in the School Breakfast Program: New evidence from the ECLS-K. Social Service Review. 2010;84(4):541–62.

FRAC-Woo 2015 - Woo N, Hewins J, Burke M, et al. School breakfast scorecard: School year 2013-2014. Washington DC: Food Research and Action Center (FRAC); 2015.

NCSL-SBP guide - National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). A guide to the School Breakfast Program.

NCSL Winterfeld-School breakfast 2014 - Winterfeld A. State legislators: Champions of breakfast at school. Healthy Communities Legislative Action Bulletin 6: School Breakfast. National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). 2014;1(6).

HFH-School breakfast - Hunger Free Heartland (HFH). Nebraska alternative school breakfast challenge: Increasing school breakfast participation by meeting students where and when they want to eat breakfast.

Date Last Updated

Mar 1, 2016