Okaloosa County Schools have one of the lowest free and reduced school breakfast participation rates in the state, but it's not because it's lacking in hungry children, according to a recent study.
Researchers for "A Good Start for Learning: School Breakfast Participation in Florida" found that during the 2011-12 school year 3,508 of the 11,385 qualified students in the county took advantage of the morning program on a daily basis.
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"We have an extremely large percentage of our kids signed up and they just chose not to eat," said Okaloosa County Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson. "And there's not a lot we can do about that. ... I don't know why the kids don't eat."
Jackson said it's not a new issue, but solutions to pull district participation rates up from the 8th worst in the state, aren't easy or fast.
"We could do a lot better, but the majority of the issues aren't food services issues," said Larry Haile, the general manager for Sodexo, the company that oversees food services in Okaloosa County Schools.
One of the first problems is that students and parents aren't always aware that if they sign up for free and reduced lunches, they also qualify for breakfast, he said.
Other times, they know they qualify for breakfast, but simply chose not to participate, especially at the secondary level.
"The high school kids are just not going to rush in and get breakfast," he said. "I think a lot of times they are just too tired."
For example, at Niceville High School, daily participation in breakfast sits at about 23 percent of qualified students, he said, whereas at the elementary level they're typically seeing about a 92 percent participation rate.
But the current lack of interest at the middle and high schools doesn’t mean officials aren't making an effort, Haile said.
In the next few weeks, they will launch the use of breakfast food carts at one local high school and two area middle schools to reach more students than the traditional cafeteria setting might.
At the elementary level, other efforts to further increase breakfast participation are underway, Haile said.
For example, at five elementary schools with high free and reduced meal populations, students are offered breakfast inside their classrooms at the beginning of each school day for free.
The Breakfast in the Classroom program was launched at Wright Elementary during the 2011-12 school year and early indications are positive, according to Principal Cathy Hubeli.
Since the program began, they've seen a decrease in tardy students and an increase in participation since students seem more alert after the free meals, she said.
"The teachers seem to think it's helped quite a bit," Hubeli said.
Haile and Jackson said they would like to improve breakfast participation but doubt the district would ever have 70 out of every 100 students qualified for the breakfast program participating as the study recommended for a goal.
Contact Daily News Staff Writer Katie Tammen at 850-315-4440 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @KatieTnwfdn.