WASHINGTON -- Arizona schools are serving breakfast to 50,000 more low-income students than they did five years ago, but still reaching fewer than half the children eligible, according to a national advocacy group.
The 229,394 students who got free or reduced-price breakfasts in the 2011-2012 school year represented a 30 percent increase from the number fed in 2007-2008, according to the Food Research and Action Center.
But the center said that was still only 46.5 percent of the kids who are eating free or reduced-price lunches at their schools. That was slightly below the national average of 50.4 percent and well below the goal of 70 percent set in the report, which only one state - New Mexico - met.
Arizona school officials said they would like to reach every eligible student, but that it can be a slow process, complicated by a lack of a statewide requirement, differing approaches at the local level, the stigma surrounding subsidized meals and other factors.
"We do take steps to actively increase the number of qualified children participating in the school lunch program," said Mary Szafranski, deputy associate superintendent for health and nutrition services in the Arizona Department of Education.
Supporters say well-fed students are better able to learn, making them more attentive in class and leading to higher test scores, in addition to the obvious physical benefits. Breakfast is particularly important to getting ready for the school day, they say.
"Breakfast is most certainly the most important meal of the day," Szafranski said. "The children just have a better outlook. They respond better and they're more conducive to learning."
The federal government reimburses states for money spent on meals in schools. Students qualify for free meals at school if their families earn 130 percent of the federal poverty level or less, under federal guidelines. Reduced-price meals are available to students whose families make up to 185 percent of the poverty level.
In 2012, a family of four would be at 130 percent of the poverty level if it earned $29,965 in the continental U.S.
Arizona requires that schools participate in the lunch program through eighth grade, but there is no statewide requirement that schools provide breakfasts.
The state Education Department provides tools and techniques, but much of the responsibility for increasing student participation at breakfast falls to individual schools and districts.
One program that has boosted participation in some districts is "breakfast in the classroom," where all kids get breakfast during their first-period class. The Creighton School District in east Phoenix adopted that program and now all students get breakfast, said governing board President Matt Jewett.
"It really is important for children to have breakfast and so moving it into the classroom is a great way to get that done," said Jewett, who is also health policy director at the Children's Action Alliance in Arizona.
Jewett said other school districts might balk because of teacher concerns that in-class breakfast could leave a mess in their classrooms, and they do not want to be responsible for the meal. But schools and the state could both do a better job making the program more successful, he said.
Karen Johnson, director of the child nutrition program for Yuma Elementary School District One, said her district has offered every student free breakfast before school since the early 1990s.
"By opening the door, we knew children of all socio-economic backgrounds could come in and all be treated the same," she said. "That's a really big deal."
When the program started, Johnson said the district saw more kids come to school to eat breakfast early. But it leveled off at around 42 percent, even as unemployment increased during the recession, she said.
Johnson said pride could be one reason parents do not push their kids into the breakfast program. The stigma surrounding the program has been a problem in the past, which Johnson said could also contribute to the low numbers.
Statewide, participation in school breakfasts in Arizona has been steadily inching up. Szafranski said the progress is good but the Food Research and Action Center's goal or 70 percent "is high" for now.
Only New Mexico made the 70 percent goal in 2011-2012, while five others - the District of Columbia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Vermont and West Virginia - had 60 percent participation.
Every state showed an increase in school breakfast participation in the last school year. Arizona's 14,000-student gain was 19th best in the nation, but its overall participation rate put it in 29th place.
The center increased its goal for states twice in the last seven years, from 55 percent to 60 percent in 2005-2006, and again to 70 percent for 2011-2012.
Crystal FitzSimons, FRAC's director of school programs, said the center raised the goal after some high-achieving states began to hit the mark.
"We try to come up with a goal we think is doable, that states can hit," FitzSimons said.
"Arizona is moving in the right direction," she said. "Obviously we would love it to be higher, but that is growth in the program."