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Sept. 7, 2001 -- "OPEN DAILY FOR BREAKFAST"

Think this sign should be in neon hanging in front of a diner?

Think again.

More and more schools are offering breakfasts that include such comfort foods as pancakes, eggs, and French toast as well as fresh fruit, cereals, and milk to any and all children regardless of their economic status. Recent USDA data show that more than 1.30 billion school breakfasts were served in 2000, and this number is expected to increase in 2001.

Many schools offer free, reduced, or full-price breakfasts depending on family income. However, evidence showing that eating breakfast boosts brain power -- combined with the desire to remove the stigma that school breakfasts are just for poor children -- is encouraging growing numbers of schools to offer free breakfasts daily -- just like they offer free textbooks and rides to school.

"Research certainly shows that children who eat a breakfast -- even a school breakfast -- stay focused, complain less of physical symptoms, and often have fewer disciplinary problems than children who don't eat breakfast," says Mary Kate Harrison, RD, director of student nutrition services for Hillsborough County School district in Tampa, Fla., and the secretary and treasurer of the American School Food Service Association, based in Alexandria, Va.

Starting at 7:30 a.m., Harrison's schools offer hungry students a number of choices each day including cereal, sausage and biscuits, and peanut butter granola bars. Fresh fruit and milk are offered every morning.

"We typically serve foods that children can eat quickly and are handheld," she says.

Three years ago, 90 of the schools in her district began offering free breakfasts to every child. "This program has grown, and our hope is to offer free breakfast to all children in all schools within a couple of years because it takes the stigma away from eating school breakfast," she says. "The more we can grow the program, the more people will look at school as a place where you go for breakfast and lunch."

Coming soon to a school near you? Perhaps.

In December 1999, USDA announced its plan to implement a School Breakfast Pilot Program that provides six schools with funding to provide free breakfasts to all students, regardless of family income. A program evaluation will assess its effects on student participation, academic achievement, school attendance and tardiness, classroom behavior, attentiveness, and dietary status.

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