Free school breakfast in the classroom makes dollars - and sense

 Free school breakfast in the classroom makes dollars - and sense 

Reposted with permission by: Dana Woldow

Overcoming the effects of poverty, including hunger, on academic achievement is a tall order for schools, and to succeed, they need to work every angle. In San Francisco, 14 schools serving mostly low income minority students have been designated as Superintendent's Zone schools, whose focus is "to expand and coordinate resources to ensure each school has the teaching and learning conditions necessary to accelerate academic growth for its students." Since reams of evidence support the conclusion that children eating school breakfast do better in school, making sure every student in these schools starts the day with a nutritious meal should be part of the toolkit.

Of the 14 schools, 3 are high schools already offering a Grab n Go breakfast students can pick up on their way to their first period class. A fourth Zone school, Everett Middle School, is getting a Grab n Go program this year.

But at the 8 K-5 schools and 2 K-8 schools in the Zone, breakfast is still a hit or miss affair, with students needing to arrive at school half an hour before classes start in order to take advantage of the free school breakfast. It is challenging for even the most organized families to get children out of the house in the morning. With buses often delivering kids late to school, and for older students, the stigma of being seen eating free meals in the cafeteria, the result is that school breakfast participation is low in SF.

That's why a universal free school Breakfast in the Classroom (BIC) in elementary schools could be so helpful. A meal of low sugar cereal, fresh fruit, and milk delivered right to each child's classroom, eaten during the first 15 minutes of class (and allowed by state law to be counted as instructional time, while the teacher takes attendance, collects homework, and makes start-of-the-day announcements) ensures that every child is well nourished and ready to focus and learn during the all important morning math and language arts instruction. This healthy meal is better than what some students would eat at home, and certainly better than the empty stomach that too many students bring to school on a regular basis.

By making the breakfast free to all students, there is no stigma attached to eating the meal. At the Zone elementary schools, nearly all of which had close to 90% of their students qualified for government paid free or reduced price meals in 2011-12, the cost of feeding the handful of students not eligible for free meals would be minimal, and more than made up for by the enormous increase in government funding generated when everyone eats school breakfast.

The primary reason to serve a universal free breakfast at Zone K-5 schools is to support better academic achievement by eliminating morning hunger, but the financial benefits should not be overlooked. SFUSD's Student Nutrition Services (SNS) has made enormous progress in driving down their deficit, from over $3 million just a couple of years ago, to likely under $2 million in 2011-12. Still, that is money which SFUSD must transfer from the general fund into the SNS budget, meaning it is no longer available to pay for teachers or textbooks or any other classroom need. With SNS expenses certain to rise in 2012-13 due to the higher cost of school meals meeting new USDA regulations, more than ever SNS needs every possible revenue dollar.

Each school breakfast served to a student qualified for free meals at a low income school brings a combined state and federal payment of about $2.07. In the 8 K-5 Zone schools, the number of students currently eating school breakfast ranges from a low of 8% at Cesar Chavez to a high of 46% at Malcolm X. Across all 8 schools, only about 23% of the 2500 students are choosing to eat breakfast in the cafeteria before school.

If the current average of 23% eating cafeteria breakfast at these schools stays the same, annual revenue from government breakfast funding will be close to $210,000. However, if even just 50% of the students at these 8 schools chose a daily free BIC meal, revenue would more than double, to over $450,000; at 60%, revenue would climb to over $545,000.

Every new school program always has its critics and BIC is no exception. The arguments most frequently raised against BIC include potential mess, infringement on instructional time, and even the possibility that some children might eat twice - once at home, then again at school.

Parents in a Rhode Island school district objected to the kind of food - cinnamon buns, for example - being served to students in the local BIC program, and pointed out that those who had already eaten at home did not need this sugary treat at school. That's why it is vital to success of the program to ensure that all items served are highly nutritious and low sugar. SFUSD's current breakfast offerings of low sugar cereal, fresh fruit and plain milk fit the bill. Everything offered is nutritious, and there are no Super-donuts, cinnamon buns, or flavored milk to tempt kids who already ate their Cheerios at home.

On the issue of messiness, the Oregon Department of Education reports that this has not been a problem at that state's BIC schools; it says the reality is:

Menus are simple and planned to reduce messiness. Menus include items that are hand-held and easily eaten by students. Surveyed schools with BIC report that trash and messes were easily handled and were not the problem for teachers that they thought it might be. Each classroom can have its own disinfectant spray bottle, paper towels, and a broom/dustpan for spills, but these items are rarely needed. In most schools, students are responsible for keeping their own areas clean and tend to be careful when eating their meals.

A newly released report on school breakfast from Advocates for Children of New Jersey (predictably underwritten in part by the Walmart Foundation) highlights other successful non-mess strategies, such as having custodians place large wheeled garbage cans in school hallways for students to deposit their trash after breakfast, or, in a first grade classroom, having "two student helpers walk around to each desk with a garbage can so their classmates could easily dispose of garbage. A third student follows with a towel to quickly clean up any messes."

As to any potential loss of instructional time, in 2010, then California Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell sent a letter to all state school district Superintendents promoting the expansion of school breakfast and calling the idea that BIC somehow negatively impacts instructional time "a myth." The letter explained, "Please be assured that you can provide students breakfast in the classroom while appropriate educational activities are taking place without worrying about an instructional minute audit exception. For example, in an elementary classroom setting, a teacher may read aloud to the class or have students read materials relevant to the day’s lesson while they eat breakfast."

What would it take for SFUSD to start serving a universal free BIC in the 8 Superintendent Zone K-5 schools? Not much, apparently. Because SNS is understaffed and all current management employees are already swamped with ongoing improvement projects, a part time project manager would need to be hired to guide the process, but that would cost less than $15,000, according to SNS director Ed Wilkins. There is grant funding available for equipment needs to expand school breakfast, but such grants generally do not cover additional labor needed to get the program running. Still, that $15,000 is a drop in the bucket for a department with a budget of about $18 million, even if it does run a substantial deficit, and the cost would undoubtedly pay for itself out of the additional revenue the classroom breakfast would generate.

More difficult to obtain, but just as crucial to the success of any classroom breakfast program, is support from top SFUSD leaders. SNS has previously tried to increase the number of students eating breakfast in elementary school; several years ago, after doing a successful pilot at 10 schools, SNS began offering a hot breakfast at all elementary schools instead of the traditional cold cereal or muffin. The number of kids eating jumped 30%, but many Principals opposed the program because more kids in the cafeteria before school meant increased supervision was required; Principals without staff to handle cafeteria supervision had to do it themselves, and they said they needed those 20 minutes in the morning for other work. The hot breakfast was soon discontinued, because SFUSD chose to prioritize what was best for the Principals over what was best for SNS, or for the additional students who showed up for school breakfast.

There is bound to be resistance to breakfast in the classroom too, which is why top district leaders have to make its success a priority. With district support, the Grab n Go breakfast program has expanded to 10 high schools and will begin at 10 middle schools this year, but elementary school remains a stumbling block. Previous efforts to draw attention to the need for expanding elementary school breakfast programs, including a report sent to then Superintendent Carlos Garcia in January 2011, recommending an expansion of elementary school breakfast beginning with schools in the Nutrition Education Project, have not been sufficient to gain administrative support.

SNS Director Ed Wilkins told me that he stands ready to pilot a BIC program at 2 or 3 of the Zone K-5 schools later this school year, if he has the support of top district leaders, but that without their support, he is unwilling to devote scarce department resources to a program which could be discontinued at the first bump in the road, as happened with the ill-fated hot breakfast in elementary school.

If SFUSD is truly committed to raising academic performance at the Superintendent's Zone schools, then breakfast in the classroom should be part of the effort. The fact that the program has proved to be a cash cow in other school districts provides added incentive for SFUSD officials to get behind the program. Breakfast in the classroom makes dollars - and sense.

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at Follow her on Twitter @nestwife.