A statewide effort to get more students to eat breakfast is yielding surprisingly positive results.
In a recent contest, Philadelphia's Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences, a middle school, beat out 900 other Pennsylvania schools in the so-called School Breakfast Challenge.
The school on East Courtland Street in North Philadelphia achieved the largest increase in breakfast participation in the state, improving from 29 percent of students in October 2013 to an average of 77 percent during January through March of this year.
"I guess it was a success," was principal Michael Reid's low-key assessment. The School District of Philadelphia's food services division will receive $3,000 on Feltonville's behalf in a ceremony at the school Friday morning.
The inaugural challenge was launched by the state Department of Education in conjunction with several nonprofit partners, including the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger and Public Citizens for Children and Youth.
School breakfast, like school lunch, is a federally funded program aimed at low-income students - though all Philadelphia School District students are eligible for free breakfasts regardless of income.
"So many schools stepped up because we know that school breakfast has such positive impacts on student health," said Julie Zaebst, policy manager for the coalition. "Schools report fewer discipline problems, improved concentration, and fewer students tardy when children eat breakfast."
At Feltonville, Stephanie DiFrancesco, the dean of students, said breakfast is making a difference.
"The eighth graders, who don't eat lunch until 1 p.m., seem more focused and aren't feeling faint, like many used to before eating breakfast," she said.
Mary Lynskey, principal of Jenks School in Chestnut Hill - the top K-8 finisher of the challenge - also has noticed an improvement in student concentration. Her school's breakfast participation jumped from 45 percent to 79 percent.
The secret to success at Feltonville and Jenks was simple, the principals said: Serve breakfast in the classroom during the first 15 minutes of the first period.
That coincides with national findings that children are more likely to eat breakfast if it's presented in the classroom at the start of the day.
Depending on students' coming in 30 minutes early to eat breakfast in the cafeteria, as many schools have done, generally fails, experts say.
"After-the-bell models work best," Zaebst said. "When you talk to most of the challenge winners, you'll find they've moved to first-period eating."
In Philadelphia and elsewhere, children typically eat whole-wheat pancakes, nutrition bars, yogurt, cereal, fruit, low-fat milk, and juice, among other offerings.
Throughout the country, schools measure their rate of breakfast eaters by comparing them with those students who eat lunch. That's because many low-income students typically will eat lunch but skip breakfast.
Pennsylvania ranks 39th nationwide for student participation in the school breakfast program, according to data from the Washington-based Food Research and Action Center, an antihunger advocacy group. The group says around 55 percent of state students who receive free or reduced-price lunch still aren't eating school breakfast.
About 78,000 breakfasts and 122,000 lunches are served in district-run and charter schools in Philadelphia per day, according to Public Citizens for Children and Youth.
Sponsors of the challenge included the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association, the Phillies, the Eagles, and the American Dairy Association.