The Highlands County School District was third in the state last school year in the percentage of low-income students who got a good start for learning with a school breakfast, according to a statewide report.
A Food Research and Action Center report states that in Florida, in the 2011-12 school year, 46.9 percent of low-income students who ate lunch at school also ate school breakfast.
Increasing participation in the school breakfast program to 70 percent would feed an additional 264,637 low-income children statewide and bring in an additional $67 million in federal funding, the report notes.
Only four districts in the state achieved or exceeded the 70-percent participation mark: Glades (87.3 percent), Franklin (84.3 percent), Highlands (76.9 percent) and Hamilton (74.7 percent).
Highlands Food and Nutrition Services Director Martha Brown said Friday: "We are proud of where our district is and that we have been providing free breakfast for our students for the past six years."
Her department is continuing with outreach programs to improve breakfast participation in the middle and high schools, Brown said. A recent parfait promotion increased participation by about 10 percent, but that included an incentive for a chance to win an iPad.
Next month, the breakfast menu will include some new items, such as mozzarella cheese sticks, to entice middle and high school students with something they may buy a la carte at lunch, but can get for free at breakfast, she said.
It's much faster for them to talk and munch on a cheese stick than it is to eat a bowl of cereal, and they get just as many nutrients out of it, she figures.
The biggest barrier to breakfast in middle and high schools is that students get to school at the last minute and want to socialize prior to class, Brown said. Some schools improved participation by offering breakfast after first period.
The Highlands County School District serves breakfast free of charge to all students and offers breakfast in the classroom in elementary schools.
The breakfast-in-the-classroom program was introduced six yeas ago in one elementary school at the request of the principal and has been so successful, the school board recently mandated that breakfast be served in the classroom in all the district's elementary schools.
Brown addressed teacher concerns about a messy classroom by serving easy-to-eat, grab-and-go type items, and providing trash cans in the classroom, specifically for breakfast trash.
This past week's breakfast menu included: maple waffle sticks, chicken biscuits, mini berry loaves and mini blueberry pancakes.
Brown said many teachers are now strong proponents of the program and encourage their students to eat breakfast each day.
Brown has also recruited the help of older students from the district's high school culinary program to help manage the increase in participation.
The culinary students receive the work experience required by their program and, in return, the breakfasts get packed up and put in coolers, ready to be delivered to each classroom the next morning.