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Kelly Smith, Published January 17 2009

Many ND students missing out on first meal of the day at school

It may be the most important meal of the day, but many North Dakota students aren’t getting breakfast – at least not at school.

A national report released this week states that North Dakota schools lag behind the nation in the percentage of low-income students who take part in breakfast programs.

Last year, nearly 43 percent of low-income students participated in school breakfast programs. While it was an increase from last year’s rates, it’s lower than the nation’s 46 percent rate.

“Our numbers in North Dakota are continuing to increase,” said North Dakota Child Nutrition Director Linda Schloer. “I would be concerned if they were going down.”

Still, the report – released by the Food Research and Action Center, an advocacy group – pushes the state to reach nearly 5,000 more students, which would require $1 million more in federal funding.

“It’s expensive,” Schloer said. “(Some districts) just don’t think it’s worth the effort.”

It seems to be worth it to Fargo schools – one of the few districts in the state offering breakfast at every school. It was an initiative Nutrition Services Director Deb Laber pushed for four years ago.

“I wanted to offer it, even if it does cost a little more to have breakfast available for everybody,” she said. “I just think you need a good start to your day.”

Of all Fargo K-12 students, 25 percent eat breakfast at the schools and about 95 percent eat lunch there.

“We do advertise that breakfast is available,” Laber said. “(But) it’s hard to get students in to get breakfast.”

Meals are served from 7:30 to 7:45 a.m. – 30 minutes before school starts. While it’s early, she said more students are participating since the program went districtwide.

“For us, there’s definitely a need,” said Manix Zepeda, the principal at Lincoln Elementary, where about

70 percent of the 120 to 130 kids who show up for breakfast each day qualify for free or reduced meals. “We’ve never had this many tables out.”

He attributed the program’s growth to the start of free busing and districtwide full-day kindergarten this year.

Student participation across the state also has grown.

In 2003, a daily average of 14,000 kids in North Dakota ate breakfast at school with 60 percent of schools in the state providing it.

By 2007, that number rose to nearly 18,000, with

75 percent of schools participating, Schloer said. Figures for the number of students who eat breakfast at Minnesota schools weren’t available.

“Schools are starting to see it helps to get all kids ready to learn,” she said. “There’s less stigma with the breakfast school program.”

More federal funding would give schools incentives to step up these programs, she added. It’s a change that may happen as more people value the early morning meal.

“Some schools are using breakfast as part of their overall school wellness,” Schloer said. “It’s become more of an acceptable, normal school day.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kelly Smith at (701) 241-5515