At East Side Elementary School, the cafeteria is packed with hundreds of kids chomping away on scones, sipping juice and eating Honey Nut Cheerios.
Hundreds of students eat breakfast here each day. It's one of a handful of county schools where breakfast is free. For everyone. Every day.
Yet, only about half the students take advantage. While about 580 students eat school lunches daily, only about 300 have their morning meal here daily.
District officials want more students at East Side and all county schools to take advantage of the breakfast program. The breakfast sticker price is $1.50, but more than 25,000 students receive free or reduced-priced meals because of their family income levels. Across the district, breakfast participation is much lower than for lunch. And officials, especially during this week - National School Breakfast Week - are arguing that breakfast is just as, if not, more important than lunch because it can affect everything from children's attention spans to physical health to test scores.
Kids who skip breakfast can spend their mornings distracted.
"It makes it harder for them to focus if they're just waiting for lunch," said Missy Rogers, an English as a second language teacher at East Side.
And breakfast has shown health benefits for children and adults. Without the metabolic kickstart of breakfast, the body's metabolism remains low, increasing risks for diabetes, obesity and other issues, said Kristin Eppig, dietitian for Hamilton County Schools.
But oftentimes, kids don't want to eat breakfast, whether it's at school or at home.
"I would think it's mostly logistics," Eppig said. "I know once they reach middle school and high school a lot of kids don't like to eat breakfast. They say it upsets their stomach or they're just not hungry."
But they should eat something. And if the health argument isn't persuasive enough, officials say there's an academic one.
"There are definitely links between breakfast and test scores," Eppig said. "So kids who eat breakfast do better in school."
Students who eat school breakfast generally achieve 17.5 percent higher scores on standardized math tests, according to the nonprofit Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry campaign. The organization's study also found that kids who eat breakfast attended 1.5 more days of school per year.
An estimated 58 percent of Tennessee's low-income middle and elementary school students who eat school lunch also are eating school breakfast, according to No Kid Hungry. If that number were to go to 70 percent, the organization estimates that 39,602 of Tennessee's students would have better math scores and that the state would pump out 9,901 additional graduates.
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at email@example.com or 423-757-6249.