BOSTON — Breakfast is fuel for learning, according to nutrition advocates who say that Massachusetts should be doing a better job of delivering the first meal of the day to school children, particularly those from low-income families, who may otherwise skip it.

A proposal unanimously approved by the state House of Representatives last week would require high-poverty schools — where 60% or more of the students receive free or reduced lunch — to also provide kids with breakfast in the classroom when the school day begins. The plan now goes to the Senate for approval.

Massachusetts already requires schools in high-poverty areas to offer breakfast. This plan would move the meal from the cafeteria before the bell to the classroom.

Supporters say serving breakfast "after the bell" helps to boost attendance, close achievement gaps and will allow the state to rope in more federal nutrition money.

"We cannot expect students to succeed if we don't meet one of the most basic needs," state Rep. Andy Vargas, D-Haverhill, a co-sponsor of the bill, said in a speech on the House floor on Wednesday. "The research shows that school breakfast increases academic scores, decreases absenteeism and improves behavior. Simply put, a hungry student cannot learn."

Vargas said the legislation will allow the state to tap into grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for states that mandate breakfast.

Rep. Brad Hill, R-Ipswich, said the requirements will ensure that students "never go to school hungry."

"The fact that many of these children are coming to school and haven't had breakfast is deplorable in today's day and age," he told fellow lawmakers. "This is a problem that affects all school districts. I've seen firsthand the food banks coming to our schools to ensure that our children are fed and that they are getting the nutrition they need."

The new program would affect some 260,000 students in 600 schools, supporters say.

Students in high-poverty districts who don't qualify for free or reduced-price breakfast under federal income guidelines would still be able to buy breakfast, under the proposal. The state would be required to cover additional costs for school districts.

Several north of Boston communities — including Salem, Haverhill and Lawrence — now offer breakfast after the bell. Some get financial assistance from nonprofit anti-hunger groups for their programs.

Roughly 1 in 10 households in Massachusetts is food insecure, meaning they don't have consistent, reliable access to nutritious and affordable food, according to the group Feeding America. Data from the USDA show Massachusetts is among the top 25 states with the highest rates of food insecurity.

Food pantry operators say despite the state's robust economy many low-income families struggle to make ends meet and often don't have enough to feed their children.

"They're paying rent, utilities, child care expenses, and in the case of grandparents, buying medicine. And there's not a lot left over to buy food for all members in the household," said Amy Pessia, executive director of the Merrimack Valley Food Bank, which also provides food to local schools. "Often times parents will make food the last priority."

Pessia said food insecurity can affect a child’s physical and mental health, academic achievement and future economic prosperity, all of which have broader societal effects.

"The reality is that children can't take care of themselves," she said. "So for the public health and well-being of everyone, we need to support them as much as possible."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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