Fewer kids ate school lunch last year after new nutrition standards put more vegetables and fewer french fries on their plates. But breakfast consumption at schools rose as more places started offering the meal in creative ways and often at no charge.
Government data show that average daily participation in school lunches decreased about 3% from 31.9 million students a day during the 2011-2012 school year to 30.9 million during the 2012-2013 school year. The biggest drop came in students who pay for their own lunch, not those who get it at a free or reduced price lunch.
Meanwhile, participation in school breakfast -- which is getting a nutrition makeover this year -- went up by about 2.5% during that same time period. The number of kids eating school breakfast daily increased from 12.81 million in 2011-2012 to 13.15 million during 2012-2013, partly due to the increase in children getting free breakfasts.
Schools are offering grab-and-go breakfasts, breakfast in the classroom and second-chance breakfasts as well as traditional breakfasts served in the cafeteria.
"We are seeing more and more school districts offering breakfast at no charge to all kids," says Janey Thornton, a deputy under secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "That's becoming a trend across the country, although nowhere near all school districts are doing it. It makes breakfast in the classroom easier to administer if everyone gets it. You don't have a cashier that's taking money.
"In some places, the school districts are picking up the difference that isn't covered by USDA reimbursements because they recognize that kids who are well fed are ready to learn, and in the long run, they may save educational dollars."
Thornton says there are many reasons why kids come to school without having breakfast. Often with kids if it's a choice between eating breakfast at home or squeezing in more time to sleep or get dressed, they choose the latter, she says. Some kids aren't hungry when they get up or they have a long ride on the bus. "I don't think it's because we have lazy parents," she says.
Starting last year government standards for school lunches required cafeteria staff to serve more variety and larger portions of fruits and vegetables and put limits on the calories that can be served at meals based on students' ages. Plus, there were limits on the amounts of grains and protein (meat or meat alternate such as cheese, peanut butter or tofu) that can be served over the course of a week. Schools are required to meet the standards to get federal meal reimbursements.
Lunch participation was "down a little this past year, and it probably has to do with the kids getting used to a little different, healthier options," says Leah Schmidt, president of the School Nutrition Association, a non-profit professional organization representing school food-service professionals. Some more affluent schools may have opted out of the program because they either couldn't or didn't want to meet the government's nutrition standards, she says.
Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for the Public Interest, says there hasn't been "a huge wave of schools dropping out," and she doesn't believe the drop in lunch participation is due to the healthier meals. "In a lot of schools, the kids really like the healthier food. As food service directors are revamping the menus to make the food healthier, they are also making it more appealing and the kids like the food better.
"Paid participation in school meals has been going down for a while so this is part of a longer term trend. At this point we don't really know the reason," she says.
Last year, some students complained they were hungry after the noon meal, and teachers and students at one school made a We are Hungry YouTube video (set to the tune of fun.'s We Are Young) parodying the problem. Some school lunch personnel said the standards were hard to meet, especially with the limits on the amount of protein and grains that could be offered.
So the government removed the maximum amounts on grains and proteins, but the meals must still meet the calorie standards. "This allows more flexibility in meal planning, but yet it's teaching kids what portion sizes should look like," the USDA's Thornton says.
The quality of school meals has been hotly debated for years because one-third of U.S. kids are overweight or obese. A 2010 law directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set new nutrition standards for all food served in schools.
The healthier school breakfast standards going into effect this year call for half of all grains to be whole-grain rich, and put limits on fats and calories in meals.
Research shows that students who eat breakfast do better on standardized tests and have improved cognitive function, attention spans and memory skills. "We know if students are not thinking about being hungry, they can achieve better academically," says Schmidt, director of Food and Nutrition Services for Hickman Mills School District in Kansas City, Mo.
School districts are looking for easy ways to weave breakfast into students' busy schedules. For instance, Schmidt plans to have a breakfast cart at the entrance to the junior high so students can grab a bagged breakfast on their way to class such as a whole-grain muffin, yogurt, juice and low-fat milk.
Deborah Taylor, director of school nutrition services at Shawnee (Okla.) Public Schools, is taking the grab-and-go breakfast one step further and offering a bagged breakfast to young children as they wait with parents in the car pool line at a pre-K--kindergarten school. One typical breakfast: 1% white milk or fat-free chocolate milk, apple slices and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on whole-grain bread.
And Dora Rivas, executive director of food and child nutrition services for Dallas Independent School District, offers breakfast in the classroom at many schools. Hot meals are delivered to the classroom most days -- everything from whole-grain biscuits with egg and turkey sausage to bean and cheese burritos, served with 1% milk and fruit or juice.
Kids eat and then use a wet wipe to clean their hands and desks. It only takes about 10 or 15 minutes, and kids who've already had breakfast before they came to school get started on their work, she says. Some school principals prefer that kids pick up their meals at a kiosk in the hallway, she says.
Teachers and principals say that when kids have breakfast they are able to focus better and they aren't so hungry "that they are running to the cafeteria at lunch time," Rivas says.