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August 10, 2023

Eating breakfast improves academic performance, and in Pennsylvania, all public schools again will serve it for free

Studies consistently have shown that regularly eating the morning meal boosts cognitive performance, leading to higher grades

Children's Health Breakfast
Pa. Free Breakfast Shapiro @GovernorShapiro/Twitter

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro greets students at Penn Hills Elementary School in Allegheny County after extending the state's universal free breakfast program, which provides the meal to the state's 1.7 million public school students.

When Philadelphia-area students return to their schools in a few weeks, they won't have to do so on empty stomachs. That's because the state's free breakfast program guarantees the early morning meal to Pennsylvania's 1.7 million public school students. 

The $46.5 million program, included in the newly-signed state budget, makes free breakfast available to all public school students, regardless of income or background. It continues a policy instituted last year after the U.S. Department of Agriculture ended its pandemic-era practice of offering universal free student meals. 

Though the state program covers Philadelphia, the city's school district has made free meals available to all students since 2014 in an effort to mitigate financial burdens for families and the social stigma of income-based free meals. The state program guarantees that the 370,000 students in the suburban Philadelphia counties will continue receiving free meals, too. 

"Kids can start the day with a full belly and the ability to focus and importantly, won't be divided up from their friends when they have to go get their meal," Gov. Josh Shapiro said at a bill-signing ceremony held at an Allegheny County elementary school. "They won't have to deal with the stigma associated with free meals." 

Scientific studies have long shown the positive impact that eating breakfast has on academic performance and well-being. A 2009 systematic review of dozens of studies published between 1950 and 2008 found that "overall, evidence suggests that breakfast consumption has generally positive effects on cognitive performance."

Another systematic research review, published in 2013, found that regularly eating breakfast was "consistently positively associated with improved school performance" and that regular breakfast eaters "had significantly higher marks for science and English compared to those who never eat breakfast." 

The scientific consensus backing the cognitive benefits of breakfast consumption has made the idea of making breakfast available to students for free – a practice first popularized by the Black Panther Party in the early 1970s – increasingly commonplace in the U.S.

Pennsylvania is one of seven U.S. states that have adopted their own universal free school meal programs, and several other states are considering expanded access to free meals. In 2021, a federal bill that proposed making free school meals available permanently nationwide was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, but stalled shortly thereafter

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