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Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2009 01:01 am

The breakfast snub

Illinois falls to 51st for providing day’s most important meal

When it comes to starting kids’ days off with a healthy meal, Illinois ranks dead last.

In Illinois, breakfast apparently isn’t such an important meal after all.

In a study released last week, the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), headquartered in Washington, D.C., reported that Illinois ranks 51st in providing breakfast to low-income children, just behind Utah. A previous FRAC study, conducted in 2005, ranked Illinois 50th in the nation.

Students who receive free or reduced-priced meals the National Lunch Program are also eligible to receive breakfast under the School Breakfast Program. Sixty-one percent of Springfield District 186 students are eligible to receive free breakfast, but only 32 to 35 percent actually participate.

During the 2007-2008 school year, just 33.4 percent of eligible Illinois schoolkids participated in the breakfast program, compared to 46 percent nationally. As a result, Illinois forfeited $42.6 million from the federal government that could have given breakfast to an additional 189,668 students.

“In any time, leaving federal dollars to feed low-income children untapped is fiscally irresponsible and poor public policy,” the report’s authors conclude. The survey also notes that eating a healthy breakfast can improve academic performance, as well as reduce obesity and behavioral problems.

FRAC recommends that the federal government increase funding for outreach campaigns, establish a free breakfast-for-all program, particularly in poor schools, raise the income eligibility cutoff for free school breakfast to 185 percent of poverty and eliminate the reduced-price copayment, provide funds to improve the quality of all school meals and strengthen local school wellness policies.

Diane Doherty, executive director of the Chicago-based Illinois Hunger Coalition says: “At a time when more families are struggling and their hardships are increasing, it is imperative to expand the reach of the School Breakfast Program.”

Mary Ellen Abbott, Illinois Hunger Coalition director for southern Illinois, believes providing breakfast is now more important than ever.

“Many people think that if a family receives food stamps they can feed their own kids, but that benefit is only about $1 per day per meal,” Abbott says. “Any meals the children can get at school mean more money for other nutritious food at home.”

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com.

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