The number of California children starting the school day with a federally subsidized breakfast on campus has shot up by nearly a quarter of a million in the last four years, according to a study by a national child nutrition research group.
Two-thirds of California's schools offer breakfast, compared to 51% four years ago, according to the Food Research and Action Center in Washington. Child nutrition advocates say studies show that children benefit academically by eating breakfast. Educators at the schools that have added breakfast say the meal has led to improved attendance, behavior and academic performance.
However, more than 1 million California children who qualify for the free or reduced-price morning meal still do not get it, the study said. For bureaucratic or philosophical reasons, numerous districts choose not to participate.
In the 1992-93 school year, 531,000 low-income students ate breakfast at schools in California, according to the center. This year, that number is up to 776,607.
In the last year alone, 450 schools with 50,000 students in Southern California have joined the breakfast program, according to Los Angeles' Interfaith Hunger Coalition.
The proportion of California schools offering subsidized breakfasts has risen slightly faster than the national average, but the state ranks below 31 states. Nationally, 71% of all schools serve breakfast to more than 5.6 million students, an all-time high.
"It is crucial that kids have a nutritious meal before they start learning," said Michele Tingling-Clemmons, who coordinates the Food Research and Action Center's national campaign to expand participation in the school breakfast program. "Hungry children don't learn well."
Any school can offer a subsidized breakfast program. The federal government reimburses the school district for each meal, and the state Department of Education provides start-up grants of up to $10,000 per school to buy equipment, such as coolers for milk.
"If we can't stem the tide of poverty, we can make sure hungry kids have a meal to eat," said Carolyn Olney, associate director of the Interfaith Hunger Coalition.
Teachers at Baldwin Park's Geddes Elementary School say they have seen the change firsthand since they started serving breakfast in early 1995.
They remember when students regularly complained of earlymorning stomachaches and headaches. Those symptoms usually point to hunger, said fifth-grade teacher Cara Crawford. "Any time they eat, they have a better day," she said.
Since the school began serving federally subsidized breakfasts, attendance is up and behavior problems are down, teachers say.
But the biggest payoff--which school officials feel is due at least in part to the free or reduced-price morning meals--is a dramatic improvement in student performance.
Student achievement has advanced by more than a full year in all but one grade, with most students performing above grade level in reading and math, said Principal Gloria Orozco.
First-grade teacher Lela Stone credits the breakfast program with encouraging students to come to school on time and enabling them to be more attentive in class.
She remembers what she called an extreme case when a student came to class on a Monday morning and simply put his head on his desk and kept it there. He had not had a meal over the entire weekend, she said.
"It was an unusual situation," Stone said. "But if there had been a breakfast program then, at least he would have had a meal that morning."
Between 60 and 80 students showed up when Geddes began its breakfast program, Orozco said. Now, about 250 of the school's 900 students eat breakfast on campus.
"I come every day," Arnold Villa, 10, a fifth-grader at Geddes, said recently over a burrito, milk and a fruit cup. "Every morning I have to hurry my little brother. I tell him we have to eat breakfast."
Joseph Sanchez, 10, another fifth-grader, said: "If I don't eat breakfast, I have a tummy ache. I feel better when I do."
Teachers and staff at Geddes are watchful for signs that a student may have missed breakfast.
"The first question we ask in the morning if they have a tummy ache is: 'Did you have breakfast this morning?' " Orozco said. If the answer is no, the student will be given a snack such as graham crackers and milk to tide them over until lunch, she said.
Scores of California schools applied for state start-up funds for breakfast programs two years ago after a Times series described how children in seemingly comfortable white-collar and working-class suburbs were going to school too hungry to learn. Teachers told compelling tales of using their own money to keep snacks on hand for hungry students, casualties of Southern California's uncertain economy.
Dozens of school districts that had held out against serving breakfast changed their minds. Many others did not.