More Connecticut students than ever before are eating the most important meal of the day.

The state’s Department of Education is working in collaboration with two local non-profits to increase Connecticut schools’ participation in a federal program that encourages more students to eat breakfast. The Breakfast Expansion Team, a collaboration forged between several state agencies and organizations to address this issue, helped 68 schools in Connecticut set up school breakfast programs last school year, according to state child nutrition director John Frassinelli. This school year, the tally is 57 as of Wednesday, indicating a surge in school participation in the program.

These efforts come at a critical time for Connecticut schools: for the seventh consecutive year, Connecticut ranked last among 50 states in percentage of National School Lunch Program schools that also offered breakfast, according to a Food Research and Action Center report released in 2013.

The School Breakfast Program is a long-standing federal program that works through the state to help schools feed more students in the morning by serving breakfast in class or having breakfast available on a cart for students to grab upon entering the school. The Department of Agriculture reimburses schools a certain amount per student fed per day, often generating a small revenue for the school to reinvest in the program.

Frasinelli said the best implementation of the school breakfast program is when breakfast is served in class by teachers. It results in fewer tardy students, fewer referrals to the office and gives students a cognitive energy boost, Frasinelli said.

“It becomes a time of communication and community building as students, and sometimes teachers, eat together,” said Jim Crawford, the breakfast navigator for the Connecticut No Kid Hungry campaign. “It also attracts students who will be paying full price for the meal which financially benefits the program.”

A 2013 study commissioned by Share Our Strength, a No Kid Hungry partner, reported that students who eat school breakfast have been shown to achieve 17.5 percent higher scores on standardized math tests and attend 1.5 more days of school per year.

Dawn Crayco, Deputy Director of advocacy organization End Hunger Connecticut!, said according to anecdotes from teachers, nurses and administrators, schools that have implemented breakfast programs have seen better behavior, more participation and fewer nurse visits in the morning.

A school in Hartford that implemented a Breakfast in the Classroom program, where teachers distribute state-approved breakfast items at the beginning of class, saw referrals to the office drop from 336 at this time last year to 32 this year, Crayco said.

“Teachers were originally hesitant because food could have been a distraction, but now there’s all around positive feedback. The kids are calmer; it’s a much more relaxing start to the day,” Crayco said. The number of schools not enrolled in the breakfast program, but been deemed, “severe need schools”, with at least 20 percent of students on federal meal assistance has dropped under 60 across 27 districts, Crawford said. He added that the program, now 38 years old, is not at risk for cuts at the federal level.

At the urging of End Hunger Connecticut! and the No Kid Hungry campaign, Gov. Dannel Malloy has been part of the movement to encourage school administrations put in place systems to make sure their pupils eat breakfast every day. He has held several press conferences on the issue to encourage schools to participate in the program.

“We have to address all of the barriers to success – and that includes making certain Connecticut students have healthy, nutritious meals to support their brain development and growth,” Malloy said at a press conference..

His next step will be to commission a study examining the reasons principals and school administrators have not enrolled in the program, Crayco said.

As of this September, 789 out of about 1100 schools in the state implemented the School Breakfast Program according to Crayco.