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Breakfast and Blackboards: A Free Meal for BPS Kids

This school year, Boston began providing free breakfast for all students, sometimes right in the classroom. Not starting the day hungry is just the first benefit.

Breakfast and Blackboards: A Free Meal for BPS Kids

Stray whole-grain muffin crumbs are no match for the teachers at the Curley K-8 School in Jamaica Plain. Dustbusters in hand, they cope with the aftermath of the breakfast that’s served in their classrooms every day.

The Universal Free Breakfast program began district-wide in Boston in September, and the Curley’s staff is just one group of adults who’ve converted to the idea of mixing yogurt with notebooks in the morning, to benefit students beyond having full tummies. Improvements in behavior, diet, and achievement have all been tracked in more than 15 years of research on learning and eating, especially the eating of breakfast.

At first, teachers and custodians were understandably leery of bringing food into the classrooms, says Curley Principal Jeffery Slater, who leads a student body of more than 700 students. His school is implementing two innovations at once – the free meal and placing it right in the classroom. And while this learning place may not be the first you think of when it comes to cleanliness, last week, Mr. Slater’s environmental walk-through of his school turned up not one bit of – shall we say – rodential evidence. It’s testament to the school community’s efforts to making breakfast in the classroom work.

At the Curley, the real estate includes a cafeteria, which not all schools in Boston have. But in the morning, staff deliver hot and cold bags right to the classrooms, where the children will have things like fat-free or 1 percent milk, fresh fruit, and eggs on a whole-grain something-or-other. Slater enthusiastically ticks off a list of benefits: the kids get a healthy breakfast, there’s less transition time than when kids ate in the cafeteria, tardies are fewer, and teachers are able to start instruction on time. “It’s a win all around,” says Slater.

Mary Lyon K-8 School, in Brighton, had breakfast in its classrooms prior to this year because they have no cafeteria. But the cost-free difference has made its impact: Participation increased 137 percent in the first month. Fewer “kids are showing up with soda and chips for breakfast on the bus!” writes Principal Deborah Rooney in an e-mail. “A healthy start to the day is helping kids stay on task and working all morning, so we are thrilled to be able to offer free breakfast at our school.”

Nationally, school breakfast was a $3 billion program in 2011, and lunch was $10.4 billion in 2012. With about three-quarters of its 57,000 students considered low-income – qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch – Boston Public Schools lists 46 schools as Provision 2, where the high percentage of low-income families allows all students to receive free lunch, as well as breakfast. (By Massachusetts law, all public schools must serve lunch, and low-income schools are required to provide breakfast as well.) By participating in the Provision 2 option of the federal school meals programs, paperwork is reduced for BPS, and the families in Provision 2 schools don’t have to apply for the meal assistance every year. Schools receive per-meal reimbursements from the USDA, and it’s expected that the additional federal funding makes free breakfast financially feasible, especially for schools with large numbers of low-income students.  

Last week, the Food Research and Action Center’s (FRAC) annual report on school breakfast participation ranked Boston eighth in effectiveness among large school districts in the United States, calculating that 69.2 percent of low-income students were participating in breakfast. BPS has performed consistently well in the years that FRAC has reported on urban districts separately from state participation, ranking as high as third in the reports. But other districts in the US have had more improvement in participation, pushing Boston down the chart to No. 8, despite a small uptick over last year in reaching students.

Michael R. Peck, director of food and nutrition services for BPS, says “it’s our hope and intention to have breakfast in as many classrooms as possible.” So last year, he went after grants to support individual schools in Boston’s 125-school system. This year, ten schools will begin using support from a program called “Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom,” funded by the Newman's Own Foundation. It’s an incentive to principals to buy necessary materials and equipment, and pay small stipends to help jump-start their efforts.

With school starting as early as 7:20 and as late as 9:30 a.m. across the city, you can begin to understand how breakfast at school is helpful, even for kids who don’t have the multiple morning challenges of low-income backgrounds, busy working parents, or siblings heading in different directions on long bus commutes. “It’s the most difficult time of the day,” Mr. Peck says. Even for the child who did get something to eat at home, the federal nutrition standards for school meals – which will get more strict for the next few years ­– serve to make sure that school is becoming an excellent place to eat.

Perhaps best of all, universal free breakfast removes the stigma for low-income kids.  When some children are required to pay and others not, “often children would not participate,” says Peck. “But once you pull down that barrier, no one can tell.” Full tummies for everyone.

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