In a state considered relatively progressive in combating social ills, it may come as a surprise that Washington ranks 39th in the nation for getting free breakfast into the bellies of kids who need it.
Though combating childhood hunger has long been a priority for advocacy organizations and elected officials, a report released Monday by United Way of King County finds that fewer than half of students eligible for free-or-reduced-price meals are eating breakfast at school.
Meanwhile, the number of children qualifying for those meals has jumped by 153 percent since 2000, growing at nearly 14 times the rate of the overall student population. In Snohomish County, the rate has almost doubled.
“Despite the evidence that need has dramatically increased in Washington state, school breakfast programs, as currently utilized, are not responding to or meeting that need,” the authors note bluntly. “Many children [are] receiving no breakfast at all.”
Currently, 40 percent of Washington kids grow up in poverty or in low-income households, and about 375,000 are without regular, healthy meals.
Any adult familiar with the crabbiness and general fatigue that accompany low blood sugar will recognize these effects in kids: behavioral problems, impaired achievement, difficulty with focus. Getting enough food is critical, as well, to children’s basic cognitive development.
Yet only 16.5 percent of Washington’s high-needs schools are meeting national targets for breakfast participation. Only 5 percent of schools in the state hit those goals three years in a row.
These dire facts have prompted the United Way to call for a change in state law, requiring high-needs schools to provide “breakfast after the school bell” — meaning that kids could grab fruit or cereal and eat it in class. With that simple adjustment, says the report, an additional 25,000 children would get breakfast every day.
Editor’s note: This post was updated at 2:15 p.m. on Jan. 7 to include a link to the United Way report.