"Breakfast is as critical to learning as pencils or textbooks."
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Credit: Photo by Wavebreakmedia via Getty Images

Today, for the first time in New York City's history, all children enrolled in public schools have the chance to face the whole day with a full stomach. Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced Free School Lunch for All the day before the start of the 2017-2018 school year, noting that now 100 percent of families are eligible for the program (up from 75 percent the previous year), and that the Breakfast in the Classroom program is still included.

The number of families in need hasn't actually increased—rather the New York State Education Department changed the method it used to match data to find eligible families, based on paperwork that the households have already completed. These new numbers qualified the city to receive the highest level of reimbursement from the federal government's Community Eligibility Provision, allowing all NYC public school students—over 200,000 of them—to receive lunch free of charge. New York City is now the largest school district in the US to implement this kind of plan, joining cities like Detroit, Chicago, and Dallas. Breakfast in the Classroom is backed by the USDA, the Healthy Schools Campaign, Share Our Strength, and other organizations.

In a press release, NYC mayor Bill de Blasio said, "We know that students cannot learn or thrive in school if they are hungry all day. Free school lunch will not only ensure that every kid in New York City has the fuel they need to succeed but also further our goal of providing an excellent and equitable education for all students." De Blasio's administration expanded the city's free breakfast initiative in the previous school year, extending its reach to over 300 schools, offering meals in the classrooms themselves during the first part of the school day, or as a grab-and-go option.

Summer Kriegshauser, Senior Program Director for the nonprofit group No Kid Hungry, tells Extra Crispy that she has seen a direct correlation between students eating breakfast and their rate of success in school. "As part of my work with No Kid Hungry, I talk to teachers all across the country,” she says. “And they all tell me the exact same thing—especially for students struggling with hunger at home, breakfast is as critical to learning as pencils or textbooks."

"When kids consistently eat school breakfast, it has a striking impact on their ability to learn. It’s all in the research—they score better on tests. Classrooms are calmer and there are fewer disciplinary trips to the principal’s office. Absenteeism rates drop," Kriegshauser says.

The issue is not isolated to New York City. USDA hunger statistics released this week reveal that 12.9 million children—one in six children—live in households that struggle with hunger and 12.3 percent of all households in America struggle with hunger. This is most prevalent in rural areas (15 percent), followed by metropolitan areas (14.2 percent) and suburbs (9.5 percent). These numbers did not represent a significant change from the statistics from the previous year, but do indicate a downward trend since a previous high in 2011. Nonetheless, Congress will meet next week to vote on the House Budget Resolution 2018., If passed, it would cut $1.6 billion over 10 years to the CEP program that provides the school lunch and breakfast programs to schools in high-poverty areas.

This would stand to still or reverse the ripple effect that Krieghauer believes starts when children receive adequate nutrition at school, beginning at breakfast. "Kids learn more, and are stronger, smarter and healthier," she says. "That leads to stronger, smarter, healthier schools and stronger, smarter healthier communities. It really has a multiplier effect on the whole community."