At 8:35 a.m., students at New Heights Elementary School in St. Petersburg often can be seen racing past rows of cinnamon rolls and cereal in the cafeteria to get to their desks before the morning bell.
But there is no good reason for why students are skipping breakfast, said cafeteria manager Debra Grimes. A study published Tuesday concurs, finding that many Pinellas County students, who get breakfast for free, aren't eating at school.
"Every student needs breakfast when they come to school, and we will do whatever it takes to make sure they get it," Grimes said. "If a child walks in late and they haven't had breakfast, we'll excuse them from class and serve them anyway. I couldn't imagine refusing breakfast, and we really try to make sure all of our students get one."
Pinellas County ranks in the bottom 15 percent in the state when it comes to the number of students qualifying for free or reduced-cost lunches who eat breakfast at school, the study says.
On average, Florida schools served about 46 low-income students breakfast for every 100 they served lunch during the 2011-12 school year, putting it at No. 28 among the 50 states, the study found. The Pinellas County school district, the seventh-largest in Florida, served 42 free breakfasts for every 100 lunches, ranking 57th out of 67 counties.
The study was conducted by two hunger-relief groups: Florida Impact and the Food Research and Action Center.
Those numbers represent a slight increase from the previous school year, and school officials expect them to increase again after several new initiatives. This school year, for example, the school district made breakfast free for all students, not just those who are low-income. Next week, schools will launch a program aimed at encouraging students to eat breakfast at school.
"Breakfast has always been available to everyone, regardless of whether their parents made millions of dollars or were considered economically needy; however, it's often thought by parents and students that it's only for the free and reduced," said Art Dunham, the school district's food services director.
"So the free and reduced kids didn't want to be earmarked, and the paying students didn't come because they didn't think it was for them. So now they come, they sit, they talk, and they have breakfast together. There's no stigma to your social status."
Expanding the free breakfast offering didn't cost anything extra because the school district already had enough in its food budget to cover the cost, Dunham said.
The number of kids eating breakfast this school year has increased by 28 percent, Dunham estimated, a healthy increase compared to what he described as the "embarrassingly low" numbers last year.
Next Thursday, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and representatives from four other school districts with low breakfast numbers will kick-start the Breakfast Expansion Program at Bay Point Elementary School in South St. Petersburg, Dunham said. Staff members there have already found ways to encourage more students to eat in the morning: They serve breakfast on rolling carts in the hallways, for example, and at bus stops, so students can eat on the go.
Students are taking advantage of the free breakfasts at New Heights Elementary, though they're still eating in the cafeteria, for now. Yet Grimes said she still only serves about half of the elementary school's 800 students, 83 percent of whom receive free or reduced-priced lunch.
Even though making breakfast more accessible will encourage low-income students to eat, schools still need to track who's eating what, said Debra Susie, executive director of Florida Impact. Many federal programs use the number of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch to determine school funding.
"Any federal resources going into a community will stimulate the local economy, and that's why it's important to make sure that students who are eligible are using those services," Susie said. "Schools could be getting more money, computers and other tools that ultimately help the students."
About 53 percent of Pinellas students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch this school year, said district spokeswoman Melanie Marquez-Parra.
Countless studies link eating breakfast with improved student behavior, health, test scores and school attendance, Susie said. And now that teachers' pay and evaluations in Florida are tied to how well their students perform on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, an extra bowl of cereal or plate of eggs in the morning could have big repercussions.
"If we're trying to make A schools with A teachers, it's very possible that we can make huge changes in the classroom just by making sure that everyone starts the morning on the same page, nutrition-wise," Susie said. "It's intuitive to have breakfast on test days, and think of what it could do for our schools if kids had access to good nutrition every day."