Proposed menu includes steak biscuits, pizza bagels, pancake and sausage on stick
A plan to offer free breakfast to all Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students goes before the school board Tuesday, with the premise that students who eat breakfast are more successful and better behaved than those who skip it.
The federal subsidy program for low-income students will cover the cost of biscuits, pancakes and other quick breakfast items for all, according to the presentation on the agenda. The goal is to eliminate the stigma of school breakfast and provide a nutritious boost for students who might be too rushed to eat.
If the board approves, the universal free breakfast program will begin Aug. 26 for an estimated 147,000 CMS preK-12th students, who will be able to grab a morning meal in the cafeteria regardless of family income.
Until now, kids went hungry because breakfasts were offered to only low-income students, who also get free or lower-cost school lunches, said Cindy Hobbs, executive director of child nutrition for CMS.
“They felt like anyone who ate breakfast labeled themselves as being poor,” she said.
Universal breakfast is a national movement pushed by Share Our Strength/No Kid Hungry, a Washington-based nonprofit promoting school meals as a means to ending childhood hunger in America.
Corporate America gets on board
ConAgra Foods, The Food Network, Wal-Mart and a number of other corporations also support the program, according to the website.
Schools in Tampa, Fla., have provided free breakfast to all students for about a decade, and the district is experimenting with free dinners at a handful of high-poverty high schools, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Studies based on Maryland efforts to boost breakfast participation show links between eating breakfast and improved attendance, behavior and math scores, according to a report by Share Our Strength.
While a growing number of urban schools and high-poverty districts are adopting universal breakfast, the New York City Health Department has raised concerns about obesity, refusing to expand the breakfast program after a study found that about one in five children were eating at home and at school. However, The New York Times reports that other cities using the program have not seen a rise in obesity.
Hobbs says CMS can offer breakfast at no cost to families, without spending county money, because the federal program and state subsidies pay more than it costs to make breakfasts. Reimbursement depends on family income and school circumstances; 126 of 159 schools qualify for “severe need” rates of $1.85 per breakfast, the presentation says.
CMS spent about $1.61 per breakfast last year, but Hobbs says she expects to lower that to about $1.41 through “economies of scale.” Even students who don’t qualify for lunch aid get a 27-cent reimbursement for breakfast, she said.
About 54 percent of CMS students qualify for lunch aid, but Hobbs said only about one-third of those students eat breakfast. Schools tried tweaking menus and sprucing up cafeterias in hopes of boosting participation, but “we hadn’t gotten rid of the stigma,” Hobbs said.
Pilot program raises participation
In May, CMS tried a breakfast-for-all pilot at four schools: two high-poverty K-8 schools that already have strong breakfast participation, a high-poverty magnet with a late bell schedule and south suburban Elon Park Elementary, where fewer than 10 percent of students qualify for lunch and breakfast aid. All schools saw more kids eating, with the biggest increase at Elon Park.
Although all will be eligible for breakfast, Hobbs says Tampa’s experience suggests just under half will actually eat.
The planned menu includes sausage, chicken and steak biscuits; whole-wheat pizza bagels; pancake and sausage on a stick; English muffins with eggs and cheese; and “griddle sandwiches” with sausage between pancakes. Students will also get fruit and milk, and have cereal and yogurt as lighter options.
There will be challenges for schools, Hobbs acknowledges, such as making sure kids get off buses in time to eat and dealing with the trash. But she said the principals and cafeteria managers she has talked to say the benefits will be worth it.
“Breakfast is such an important meal,” she said.
Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter @anndosshelms
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