WASHINGTON (AP) â€” About 6.4 million poor schoolchildren are getting free or reduced-price breakfasts, nearly double the number a decade ago, but millions of other needy kids aren't receiving the meals because too few schools offer them, an advocacy group says.
About 42 percent of low-income children who participate in the federal school lunch program also got the government-subsidized breakfasts during the 1999-2000 school year, according to a report released Wednesday by the Food Research and Action Center.
West Virginia has the highest participation in the breakfast program, with 56 percent of kids getting free or reduced-priced lunches also receiving the breakfasts, the report said.
If children in other states participated in the breakfast program as much as they do in West Virginia, an additional 2 million kids would be getting the meals, at a cost to taxpayers of $321 million, the report said.
In 1990, about 3.4 million participated in the breakfast program.
``Children eating school breakfasts come to school on time, are less likely to be absent, learn more and behave better,'' said Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center. ``States and schools that lag in breakfast are tying one hand behind their teachers backs.''
Wisconsin has the lowest level of participation in the breakfast program at 22 percent of children in the lunch program, the report found.
The report was funded by a variety of foundations and food companies.
Schools are often reluctant to offer breakfast because there is a stigma attached to children who participate, said Marilyn Hurt, president of the American School Food Service Association.
Some schools have been trying to remove that stigma by encouraging higher-income students to eat at school. In Omaha, Neb., breakfast is being offered free to all children regardless of income. About 16,000 are currently participating, double the number four years ago.
``We have to continue to drive home the point that school breakfast is a tool for learning,'' said Hurt, who is supervisor of nutrition programs for the LaCrosse, Wis., school district. ``It's as much a tool for learning as a pencil, or as much a tool as a computer or textbook.''
In her district, the breakfasts are distributed to kids in bags and typically include a muffin, breakfast sandwich, milk or juice and fruit.
Under federal rules, lunch and breakfast are free to children in homes with an annual income of $22,165 or less for a family of four. To qualify for reduced-price meals, a family of four can have an income of up to $31,543.
On the Net:
Food Research and Action Center: http://www.frac.org
Agriculture Department's Food and Nutrition Service: http://www.fns.usda.gov