DC School Breakfast Program Still Lags, But Could Leap Ahead If Funding Holds

“All the child can think about is food and when is lunch. The child has a hard time thinking about reading, math, science or anything else.” So says someone who ought to know — one of the teachers recently surveyed for Share Our Strength.

Nearly two-thirds of them reported that children in their classrooms regularly came to school hungry because they weren’t getting enough to eat at home. The figure is even higher for teachers in schools where 16% or more of the students live below the federal poverty line.

Lots of research supports the value of in-school breakfasts — and not only as a factor in academic performance.

Children who get breakfast at school have been found to have fewer physical and mental health problems, better eating habits, fewer difficulties getting along with others and fewer disciplinary encounters with school authorities.

So we should worry about the not-so-cheering school breakfast scorecards the Food Research and Action Center has been issuing for 10 years now. The latest, issued in January, gives us state-by-state figures for the 2009-10 school year.

At the same time, FRAC issued its fourth report on school breakfast participation in big-city school districts with high concentrations of poverty, including the District of Columbia.

These districts, FRAC says, “have an especially important mission to ensure that children have access to adequate nutrition to learn, grow, and thrive.”

That’s certainly the case for the District’s public school system. According to another FRAC report, a mind-boggling 40.6% of District households with children suffered from food hardship in 2008-9.

FRAC measures participation in school breakfast programs by comparing the number of low-income children they serve to the number of low-income children in the schools’ lunch programs. Low-income here means they’re eligible for free or reduced-price meals, i.e., live in families with incomes at or below 185% of the federal poverty line.

The figures for the District’s public schools are mediocre, as they were for the 2008-9 school year. Indeed, the key figures are the same.

  • Of the low-income children served by the federally-subsidized school lunch program, 48.4% also got federally-subsidized breakfasts.
  • This puts the District in the middle of the big-city rankings. Participation rates for six districts were 60% or higher. Newark, New Jersey again topped the list with a 90% participation rate.

So the D.C. public schools clearly have work to do.

But I think it’s better to view the FRAC figures as a benchmark rather than a black mark. Because the Healthy Schools Act, passed in 2010, aims to improve participation in local school breakfast programs in two important ways.

First it extends the District’s “universal breakfast” program to public charter schools. This means that all D.C. public school students can get breakfast free, no matter what their family’s income.

Second, it requires schools where more than 40% of the students qualify for free or reduced-price meals to serve breakfast in some manner that doesn’t require kids to get to school early and go to the cafeteria.

For elementary schools, this must be breakfast in the classroom. Middle and high schools may use any of several alternative models, e.g., breakfast in the classroom, “grab and go” bags that students can dip into before or between classes, a “second chance” breakfast after the first period.

Both these mandates directly address some of the barriers that help account for low school breakfast participation rates — problems getting to school early enough for breakfast, a cost that some families can’t afford and the stigma of being known as poor enough to need a school breakfast.

But if the mandates work as intended, they’ll drive up schools’ costs because more children will participate.

Schools will also incur higher costs because the meals they serve, including those additional breakfasts, must meet the gold level award standards of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s optional HealthierUS Challenge.

The Institute of Medicine, whose recommendations the standards reflect, warned that implementing them could increase food costs for breakfasts by as much as 23%.

The Healthy Schools Act provides for some extra funding to help pay for the higher costs of the healthier meals. It also establishes some extra funding to compensate charter schools for serving free breakfasts to children for whom they can’t claim the federal free breakfast subsidy.

But will the schools actually get what the Healthy Schools Act authorizes? The funding, after all, depends on local appropriations.

It almost got cut to close the last budget gap. And now the Gray administration and DC Council face another bigger gap — perhaps even bigger than the Chief Financial Officer projected.

Among the savings identified in Mayor Gray’s proposed education budget, we find that the Office of the State Superintendent of Education plans to do away with the charter school breakfast subsidy.

So what will happen to the far-reaching healthy schools initiative is anybody’s guess. But kids do need a good breakfast. And I think we should make sure they can get it.

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