It's mid-morning. A student should be solving a linear equation, but a gnawing hunger pang interrupts her attempt to solve for "y."

What can she do?

In many cases, the student's only option is to visit the school nurse.

"They come down around 9:30 or 10:00 because they haven't eaten breakfast. I routinely give them crackers — Saltines or something," said Carol Festa, school nurse at Manheim Central High School.

But a few crackers and water is no substitute for the balanced breakfast that research shows helps students succeed in school. That's why in recent years many districts have focused on boosting the number of students eating breakfast at school.

It's also why state anti-hunger advocates launched the Pennsylvania School Breakfast Challenge, encouraging schools to increase breakfast participation by 30 percent between January and March. Countywide, 11 of 16 school districts have joined the challenge, which is sponsored by numerous advocacy organizations and businesses, as well as Gov. Tom Corbett and first lady Susan Corbett.

Nationally, only about one low-income student eats breakfast at school for every two that get free or reduced lunch, according to a January report from the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center. Pennsylvania ranked 38th among the states for low-income student participation in school breakfast programs.

Locally, food services directors said they're concerned about increasing breakfast participation not just among low-income students but among all students.

"I have all types of students coming down for breakfast. There are a lot of students who don't eat breakfast at home," said David Ludwig, Manheim Central's food services director.

Brian Rathgeb, Hempfield's food services director, said his approach to the breakfast challenge is to improve options. "How can we make it exciting? How can we get kids into the cafeteria?" he asked.

He said a twice-weekly fruit and yogurt bar "is starting to gain some momentum" at secondary schools, and "baked funnel cake Fridays" are popular with younger students.

In other districts, getting students on the breakfast wagon means wheeling it right to them. At Bucher Elementary in Manheim Township, cafeteria staff began serving breakfast from a cart near the school entrance at the end of last year. In January, the Mid-Atlantic Dairy Council donated a larger cart to the school.

The setup allows students to grab items such as cereal bars, yogurt and fruit as they head to class. It works better than traditional breakfast, said food services director Gavin Scayler, because the cafeteria isn't en route to classes from the bus drop-off spot.

Scayler said about 10 percent of all Manheim Township students eat school breakfast, but at Bucher the rate is 17 percent. He hopes to replicate the model at other schools.

"If the kids can take it back to the classroom, that's one of the biggest things. ... Breakfast (becomes) more popular," he said.

At Manheim Central Middle School, on the other hand, the hallway is the cool place to be before the bell rings. So the cafeteria staff sets up tables there. They use a cart donated by Kellog's, and students can choose a hot meal, like an egg and cheese croissant sandwich, or cold options like cereal and muffins.

"We're trying to reach out and be where those students are. We've seen a great increase in participation because we're bringing it to them," Ludwig said.

The food services director said he's been "steadfast" about growing the breakfast program even before the statewide challenge. The district served 67,774 breakfasts last school year. That's a 119 percent increase from the 30,942 breakfasts served five years earlier.

"Teachers tell me that breakfast is a big contributor to the students being more settled and ready for class," Ludwig said.

Scayler of Manheim Township has also seen the positive effect of morning meals at the other district where he works, Pequea Valley. When he started there in 1999, he pushed to serve breakfast at every school.

"We saw the difference. There were less visits to the nurse's office. No more Saltine crackers," he said.

Kara Newhouse is a Lancaster Newspapers staff writer who covers K-12 education trends and policies. She can be reached at or (717) 481-6103. You can also follow @KaraNewhouse on Twitter.

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