HARRISBURG, Pa. - Each school day in Pennsylvania, just over 600,000 low-income students sit down to a free or reduced-price school lunch, but a new report reveals fewer than half of them are taking part in school breakfast programs.
The Food Research and Action Center's School Breakfast Scorecard ranks Pennsylvania 39th in the nation for school breakfast participation, which means many more children could be served.
Ronna Bolante, communications manager for the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, says some schools are finding more success by offering breakfast with flexibility.
"Serving breakfast in the classroom after class starts," she explains. "There are also some high schools that have started serving Grab and Go breakfasts in hallways, so students can pick up breakfast on the way to class, and those strategies have proven really effective in boosting participation in those schools."
She explains children who eat a nutritious breakfast are more attentive in class, do better in reading and math and have fewer school nurse visits and discipline problems.
The report says Pennsylvania's numbers are up about 2.5 percent since 2012, and they could continue to improve with a program known as Community Eligibility.
It allows schools with high poverty rates to offer free meals to all students.
Jim Weill, president of the Food and Research Action Center, says the program is working well in other states where it's been tested.
"It's a great new system for schools with a lot of low-income kids," he explains. "They don't need individual paper or online applications anymore.
"They get higher federal reimbursement and that's going to give schools a whole new shot at really upping their game."
The Community Eligibility Program is set to roll out nationally in the school year that begins this fall.
The state is also encouraging higher participation with a Pennsylvania School Breakfast Challenge.
Bolante says schools that take part receive technical equipment and assistance to improve their breakfast programs.
"We have over 1,100 schools that have signed up to take this challenge this semester," she says. "And then collectively, they have the potential to really improve breakfast participation for the 675,000 children who are enrolled in their schools."