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Does Breakfast in Classroom Impact Childhood Obesity and Academic Performance?

Priyam Vora
Increase in school breakfast participation neither raised the prevalence of obesity in children nor did it appear to improve studentsí attendance or academic achievement, researchers found.
Breakfast has always been considered the most important meal of the day. School breakfast advocates have repeatedly argued that without a proper breakfast, children will not function at their best. However, research published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management debunks this myth. Increase in school breakfast participation neither raised the prevalence of obesity in children nor did it appear to improve students’ attendance or academic achievement, researchers found.

The research, led by New York University (NYU)’s Institute for Education and Social Policy and the Center for Policy Research at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, found that similar to the school lunch programs, the breakfast program aims to reduce food insecurity, improve nutrition, and facilitate learning. The only difference in the School Breakfast Program is that it serves the breakfast inside the classroom at the start of the day instead of in school cafeterias before class begins. Advocates hope the in-class approach will encourage participation in school breakfast programs.

“Moving breakfast into the classroom is intended to encourage participation in school breakfast programs, particularly among students unable to arrive early, and to reduce the stigma associated with a trip to the cafeteria,” said Amy Ellen Schwartz, director of the NYU Institute for Education and Social Policy.

The program to implement breakfast in classrooms in New York City began in 2007. The program has gained such progress that by 2016, breakfast in the classroom is offered in nearly 400 of the city’s 1800 public schools, with more than 30,000 classroom breakfasts served each day.

The participation rates have escalated by and far. Since the implementation of breakfast in the classroom, the participation rate has increased from 25% to 80%, according to the New York City Department of Education.

Advocates argue that moving breakfast from the cafeteria to the classroom provides many benefits, including improving academic performance, attendance, and engagement, and reducing hunger and food insecurity. Critics argue that breakfast in the classroom can contribute to weight gain and obesity, as some students may consume extra calories by eating 2 breakfasts—one at home and one at school. The new research sheds light on the positives and negatives of breakfast in classroom.

The NYU researchers studied students in kindergarten through eighth grade at roughly 200 public elementary and middle schools offering breakfast in some or all classrooms. They examined school breakfast and lunch participation, student height and weight measurements, and administrative data including demographics, attendance, and math and reading test scores in grades 4 through 8.

They found that while participation in the school breakfast program increased significantly, this increase had no impact whatsoever on the lunch program participation. There was also no evidence that the breakfast program contributed to obesity. In addition, the researchers found that the effects on academic achievement were small and statistically insignificant. (But at the same time, breakfast in classroom did not have a negative impact on their academic performance.) Serving breakfast in the classroom had no effect on attendance either.

“While we find that providing breakfast in the classroom had large positive effects on participation in school breakfast programs, our analysis provides no evidence of hoped-for gains in academic performance, nor of feared increases in obesity,” said Sean Corcoran, associate director of the NYU Institute for Education and Social Policy. “When looking at academic achievement and attendance, there are few added benefits of having breakfast in the classroom beyond those already provided by free breakfast.”

 
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