More than one of every two Arizona children who attend public school qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch and breakfast program based on their family’s income. The percentage of eligible kids has increased over the past five years — likely the result of the recession and enrollment efforts by the Arizona Department of Education, schools and community groups.

The negative effect hunger has on a child’s academic and behavioral success in school is well-documented, and one reason the federal free and reduced-price school lunch program has gained mainstream acceptance and expanded to include breakfast.

The state Department of Education wants to increase the reach of the federal school nutrition program by advocating for schools to embrace what’s known as “breakfast in the classroom” — encouraging schools to serve a morning meal to every student, every day that they eat in their classrooms instead of the cafeteria.

It’s a good idea, and one that community members and groups help make a reality. The department is working with the Valley of the Sun United Way in Phoenix to identify schools with high numbers of low-income children in Maricopa County, and to help educate principals and teachers about the benefits of breakfast in the classroom.

We in Southern Arizona can help with the push, too.

More than 90 percent of Arizona schools that participate in the federal lunch program already offer breakfast, but only 49 percent of the students who eat a free or reduced-price lunch also eat breakfast. Last school year, that amounted to roughly 242,000 Arizona children.

Many schools offer breakfast before the school day begins, and kids must get to campus early and skip playing with their friends before class if they want to eat. Serving breakfast in the classroom eliminates those obstacles, which may be simple for adults to dismiss, but are significant when you’re, say, in third grade.

“When you have more children participating, you have better academic achievement and fewer behavioral issues,” said Mary Szafranski, associate superintendent for health and nutrition services at the Arizona Department of Education. “You have a healthier child ready to learn.”

Some nuts and bolts about the federal lunch and breakfast program: Students qualify for a free meal if their household annual income is 130 percent or less of the federal poverty level (about $25,000 for a family of three), and they receive a discount if the income is 185 percent of poverty level (about $36,000 for the same family).

School districts and charter schools set their own full prices for meals; in Tucson Unified, for example, elementary school breakfast costs $1.25 and lunch is $2.

Arizona is one of only nine states that increased the number of students receiving breakfast by 5 percent or more between the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years, according to a recent Food Research and Action Center report.

Schools are reimbursed with federal dollars for every reduced-price or free breakfast they provide, as they are with lunches. Arizona schools received $78.7 million for the breakfast program in fiscal year 2013, up $6.8 million from the year before.

In July the eligibility requirements for free-and-reduced-price meals will be simplified. If at least 40 percent of a school’s students come from families who qualify for the federal SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) — formerly known as food stamps — then it can opt into the Community Eligibility Provision, which allows the school to serve all of its students a free breakfast and lunch without requiring families to qualify separately and be reimbursed with federal dollars. The Department of Education is reviewing those guidelines and rules, Szafranski said.

Sometimes principals and teachers resist serving breakfast in the classroom because they’re not sure how it would work, said Cara Peczkowski, the Arizona Department of Education’s school nutrition programs co-director. They’re working with the Dairy Council of Arizona on a marketing video to show how schools are already doing it.

Arizona doesn’t require schools to participate in the federal school meal program, so each district or charter school will decide whether to sign up.

The existing effort is focusing on Maricopa County, but the Department of Education needs classroom breakfast advocates in the rest of Arizona, too.

This is an opportunity for Tucsonans who want to improve education to get involved. The research connecting meal programs to academic achievement is strong and long-standing. Classroom breakfasts significantly boost the number of kids who have a solid meal to start the day.

We encourage parents and community members to urge them to do so by contacting your local school or the Department of Education and asking how you can help.