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Students need a healthy breakfast to learn

Lizbeth Vargas eats breakfast while working at her desk at White Rock Elementary School in Rancho Cordova. Advocates want to offer breakfast after school starts.
Lizbeth Vargas eats breakfast while working at her desk at White Rock Elementary School in Rancho Cordova. Advocates want to offer breakfast after school starts. rbenton@sacbee.com

When you’re the governor’s fiscal adviser, you see plenty of ideas come across your desk. Many are well-intentioned and would result in a modest benefit for Californians and the state’s economy. But on occasion, a proposal makes such good sense that it should be seriously considered.

For me, good public policy satisfies three criteria. It significantly improves people’s lives. It puts no undue burdens on taxpayers. It boosts the state’s economy.

Increasing participation in the school breakfast program would meet all three of these criteria handily.

It is an unfortunate reality that 4 in 10 families aren’t able to provide their children with a nutritious breakfast because of hectic schedules or financial roadblocks. More than 4.3 million California children miss out on breakfast at school. Most schools either do not serve breakfast at all or only serve it very early in the morning, when many kids have yet to arrive.

A large body of research has shown that students who miss breakfast have a harder time concentrating, are more likely to misbehave and don’t perform as well on tests. That’s on top of the negative physical and mental health effects of being hungry for at least half of the day. All of these outcomes lower the return on taxpayers’ investment in education.

One solution is for schools with the most disadvantaged students to serve breakfast after the start of the school day. According to a recent study we prepared for California Food Policy Advocates, it’s a bargain.

For decades, the federal government has provided schools with more than $1 per breakfast served to low-income students. The state pitches in about 22 cents per meal.

If we were to increase the number of students who eat breakfast by 10 percent, schools would receive an additional $40.2 million in federal funds – nearly nine times more the state cost of less than $4.8 million.

There’s another upside to expanding school breakfast. The additional federal money would also generate new economic activity as schools hire staff, buy equipment and purchase food. Those workers and businesses would then spend money at California businesses.

As a result, the state would gain $42.7 million in economic activity, nearly 1,000 new jobs and $2.7 million in new tax revenue a year, offsetting most of the initial state cost. And that’s without counting the long-term fiscal benefits associated with better health and higher academic achievement.

As a public policy, that’s hard to beat.

Tim Gage, former director of the state Department of Finance, is principal and co-founder of the Blue Sky Consulting Group.

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