Research has long shown that breakfast can improve cognitive function, and because a lot of American children—a shocking 22 percent of them—live in poverty, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has offered grants to provide “nutritionally needy” children with free breakfast at school for a half-century. But as these programs have grown sharply in recent years, thanks in part to an Obama administration initiative—last year, nearly 12 million low-income children ate breakfast at school, which is almost half a million more than the previous school year, according to the Food Research and Action Center—so too has the concern that free school breakfast might be contributing to our country’s obesity epidemic.
For example, what about the kids who are already eating breakfast at home and then packing in a second breakfast as soon as they get to school? Does that second breakfast at school increase their risk of obesity? These are legitimate questions, given that the percentage of American children who are obese—18 percent among 6-to-11-year-olds, and 21 percent for 12-to-19-year-olds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—is almost as staggering as our childhood poverty rates.
Well, we can relax a little bit on that front. A new study released Thursday in the journal Pediatric Obesity found that, for school-age kids, the danger isn’t in eating too much in the morning, but too little. Researchers followed the breakfast habits of 600 fifth-graders at 12 schools in New Haven, Connecticut, for two years and found that the kids who ate breakfast twice showed no more or less weight gain than those who ate just one breakfast, whereas the kids who skipped breakfast or ate it irregularly were twice as likely to be overweight or obese than the double-breakfast eaters.
While airtight explanations for these findings are still elusive, researchers speculated that the kids who ate breakfast at school—whether they’d already eaten at home or not—might have a more “healthy weight trajectory” than the breakfast-abstainers because the latter were more likely to eat unhealthy foods in the evening, when there was less opportunity to burn off the excess calories.
While this study offers more proof that free meals in school are an overwhelmingly good thing, I wish it had gone into more detail about the content of those meals. Nutritional guidelines for food served in schools have improved under the Obama administration, but not all schools—or kids—are on board yet. Case in point: my family. We’ve had free school breakfasts for the four years my son has been in school, but their quality has been widely inconsistent. His first school regularly served up fluorescent Trix yogurt and syrup-soaked “French toast sticks,” both of which he’d eagerly lap up; never mind that he’d already eaten a full breakfast not 20 minutes earlier at home. His current school’s breakfast offerings are more in the gray-oatmeal-and-an-undersize-unripe-banana line, which he won’t touch. I vote for the next study to present some foolproof formula for getting schools to serve nutritious meals that kids will actually consume.
*Correction, March 18, 2016: This post originally misidentified the Food Research and Action Center as the Food and Research Action Center.