Start Smart Nutrition Program Funding Denied
Last week the Joint Budget Committee (JBC) denied funding for free breakfasts for about 12,000 low-income students even though we have the money and it will not add to our budget short fall. In a 3-3 vote the JBC rejected a request for $124,000 in additional funding for the Start Smart Nutrition Program.
We supported the 2007 legislation (SB 59) creating the program that picks up the tab for those students who qualify for reduced priced breakfasts. Research shows that students who participate in school breakfast programs have more nutritious diets, do better academically and suffer fewer behavioral problems.
These effects were most consistently observed in students from families that fall in the income range who are eligible for the reduced price breakfasts, the very students covered by the Start Smart program.
As a practical matter, charging the reduced price for school breakfasts presented problems for parents, students and school districts. Often parents would not have the money or the students would forget to bring the money to school. Charging the small co-payment was a hassle for the schools and ended up creating a barrier for some students to get a nutritious breakfast at school.
The state of Washington, which adopted a program similar to Start Smart in 2006, found that by dropping the co-pay the number of low-income students eating breakfast at school increased by 37 percent.
In our view this is a short-sighted decision that limits opportunity for low-income students. The students who currently get a free breakfast eat better and perform better in school. This is a tangible, proven action that increases test scores and helps close gaps in achievement between low-income and middle-to-high income students.
Imposing even the relatively small co-pay will likely result in some needy children not eating breakfast at school. This is exactly the kind of investment we should be making because it pays long-term dividends not only to the students, but to our overall society as students perform better academically and live healthier lives.
What's most shocking, however, is that extending this funding will not add to our current budget shortfall because the money is currently sitting in a cash fund set up for this very purpose. The nonpartisan Joint Budget Committee staff recommended extending the funding by taking the $124,000 from the cash fund.
Unfortunately, three members of the JBC decided it was better to leave the money in the cash fund and instead push additional costs on to low-income families making it harder for needy students to get a nutritious breakfast at school.
If lawmakers do not want to tap the cash fund, they could all agree to forgo $12.50 from their per diem for 100 days of the legislative session. This will generate $125,000 in savings that could pick up the tab for the kids' breakfasts. Symbolically, lawmakers would be skipping breakfast so that low-income kids don't have to.