Universal school breakfast programs give parents and teachers heartburn

by Laura Edghill
Posted 4/21/15, 02:33 pm

Schools nationwide are serving more breakfasts than ever, and many have adopted policies offering all students the meal, regardless of their income level or interest.

Advocates contend that by serving everyone, students who qualify for free and reduced meals quietly enjoy their meals in anonymity alongside their peers. Critics argue the programs waste taxpayer dollars and food, and take up valuable instructional time.

Among the critics are parents like Lilian Ramos, a mother of two elementary school children in a working-class Los Angeles neighborhood.

“They say if kids don’t eat they won’t learn,” Ramos said. “The truth is that many of our kids come to school already having eaten. They come here to study.”

Ramos prepares her children a traditional hot Mexican breakfast every day and is offended the school assumes so many students come to school hungry.

In an effort to deliver the meals efficiently, many participating schools also serve breakfast in the classroom rather than the cafeteria, forcing teachers to contend with a host of issues, including lost instructional time and food allergy protocols.

At one Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) elementary school, teachers recently distributed breakfast, checked off which students were eating, and showed a video to incorporate a nutrition lesson, all in 10 minutes. The teachers gave students apples, cereal, and a small, packaged breakfast sandwich. 

“I think it’s a good way for students to eat here because sometimes at home they’re in such a rush,” said student Fatima Nassar, 10. “Sometimes I see students throw it away.”

At the end of breakfast, the classroom’s large cooler was filled with uneaten breakfast sandwiches.

School administrators argue their goal is to eliminate barriers to effective learning. With more than 50 percent of children across the country considered low-income, the programs are an attempt to give schools a vital edge in compensating for stresses normally outside their influence.

But the programs also generate a lot of cash, providing schools with valuable federal dollars that can shore up tightly budgeted cafeteria programs. In the LAUSD, the number of participating children has grown from 29 percent to 81 percent in just the last three years. That growth has brought an additional $16 million annually, according to Laura Benavidez, the district’s deputy director of food services.

Schools also receive more federal dollars per meal if at least 40 percent of their population qualifies for free and reduced lunch. That incentive has prompted some schools to regularly promote the government benefit by sending students home with copies of program applications.

LAUSD, like many other school districts, has been experimenting with its district-wide breakfast initiative to provide all students with a morning meal.

But parents like Ramos are pushing back. They worry about unsanitary eating conditions in classrooms and lost instructional time, particularly for vulnerable students like English language learners. The parents want schools at least to move the meals to the cafeteria.

School board member Monica Garcia, an advocate for the universal breakfast initiative, acknowledged a one-size breakfast solution probably doesn’t fit all.

“Does it help the majority of kids? I think it does,” she said. “Do we still need to figure out what to do when people want to opt out? Probably.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Laura Edghill

Laura is a freelance writer, church communications director, and public school board member living in Clinton Township, Mich., with her engineer husband and three sons. She is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Laura on Twitter @LTEdghill.

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