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Free breakfast for all CMS students gets OK

Tens of thousands of students will get free breakfasts next school year, after the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board voted 7-1 for a program that aims to improve academics by fighting hunger.

“We all know you can’t teach a hungry child,” Cindy Hobbs, the district’s executive director of child nutrition, told the board.

The universal breakfast program, part of a national movement, uses federal money to provide morning meals for all students, regardless of family income.

The goal is to eliminate the stigma of picking up a free breakfast, which had been offered only to students from low-income homes. Some studies indicate that eating breakfast improves behavior, attendance and academic performance.

Sausage biscuits, pizza bagels, cereal and other breakfast items will be offered, along with fruit and milk.

“That’s turkey sausage on a whole-grain biscuit,” Hobbs said, explaining that there are guidelines for fat content and whole grains.

‘Cost still comes from us’

Most board members were enthusiastic, though they had questions about the menu and the process. Amelia Stinson-Wesley voted against the plan, and Eric Davis was absent.

“I think it’s going to make a big difference with nutrition of children in our schools,” board member Joyce Waddell said.

“A hungry child may come from a million-dollar home on the lake whose mom didn’t have time to fix breakfast,” said member Rhonda Lennon, voicing support.

Lennon said she’s gotten calls from constituents worried that money for breakfasts will require cuts to the overall budget. That’s not the case, Hobbs said.

Hobbs said federal and state subsidies for providing breakfast to low-income students come to more than the cost of making breakfast, especially on a large scale. That will allow CMS to offer the meal without charging families or tapping county money.

“The cost still comes from us, because it’s taxpayer money,” board member Tom Tate noted.

Hobbs estimates that 48 percent of students will eat breakfast. CMS expects almost 147,000 students next year, including prekindergarten. About 30,000 CMS students ate breakfast at school last year.

Share Our Strength/No Kid Hungry, a national nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., is promoting the universal breakfast movement, with support from food companies and other corporations. The movement began in the late 1990s; one researcher reports that in 2004-05 more than 2,000 schools in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Massachusetts, California and Ohio offered free breakfast for all students.

Many educators are enthusiastic, saying it provides a healthy start not only for students whose families can’t afford to feed them, but for children who may be too rushed to eat before school.

Criticism has focused mostly on high-calorie menus and the time it takes at the start of the day. A Los Angeles teachers’ union objected to the use of class time to serve breakfast, and the California Department of Education accused several districts of misusing meal subsidies by spending the money on other expenses.

CMS board member Richard McElrath voiced concern that students will eat twice, at school and at home. That’s an issue that has arisen elsewhere as well.

Title I bid approved

In other action Tuesday:

• The school board approved an application for $36 million in federal Title I money for high-poverty schools, a plan that includes creating a new alternative high school with evening hours.

The Title I plan is similar to ongoing efforts to support schools where at least 75 percent of students qualify for federal lunch aid to low-income families, said Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark. Two more schools – Marie G. Davis Military/Leadership Academy, a K-12 magnet, and University Meadows Elementary, a neighborhood school – are expected to hit that mark next year, bringing the total to 66 of the district’s 160 schools.

The biggest new item is creation of a “twilight school,” which would offer classes from about 3:15 p.m. to 8 p.m. for students who want an alternative to regular hours. Hawthorne High currently offers those hours, Clark said, but it is being phased out to make way for a health sciences magnet. The Title I plan also includes money for middle school technology and Bright Beginnings prekindergarten, Clark said.

• Morrison named two new zone superintendents: Tonya Kales, principal of Ashley Park PreK-8 School, and H. Allen Smith, coming from Denver Public Schools. He did not say which schools they will supervise. Morrison is reorganizing his central staff but hasn’t released specifics.

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms
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