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CMS free breakfast participation small but growing

Enthusiasm for free breakfast in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is building, but most students are still saying “no, thanks” to the offer of a biscuit, bagel or box of cereal.

At the end of the second week of classes, 37,249 students – about one in four – ate breakfast at school. That’s up from 29,346 at the same time last year, when only students who qualified for lunch subsidies could get a free breakfast. And it’s about 4,500 more breakfasts than the district served at the end of the first week.

The goal is to make sure empty stomachs don’t interfere with learning. CMS decided to offer free breakfast to all children to remove any stigma and to acknowledge that even in affluent homes, hectic schedules can make it tough to get a healthy morning meal.

No one expects every student to eat at school. But if participation hasn’t increased substantially by October, “I’ll be real disappointed,” said Cindy Hobbs, CMS director of child nutrition.

By serving free breakfast to all students, CMS is jumping into a national trend that’s something of an anomaly. At a time when cuts and controversy are the norm in public education, the free-breakfast push seems to be hitting little resistance.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which covers the tab, urges districts to offer free breakfast. Educators and nutrition officials, including the School Nutrition Association, concur.

“I haven’t seen any negatives with it. Students actually do focus better if they’re eating,” says association President Leah Schmidt, whose district in Kansas City, Mo., has offered all kids free breakfast for about five years. She said participation normally starts small and builds; about half the students in her district now eat breakfast.

And a long list of food companies, including Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, Tyson, Fresh Market, Kellogg’s and Whole Foods, support the “ No Kid Hungry” campaign to promote universal free breakfast.

Although there have been some rumblings locally and nationally that handing out breakfast could encourage overweight kids to overeat, The New York Times reported last year that districts offering free breakfasts haven’t seen major obesity problems.

The most enthusiastic claims of free-breakfast proponents – that better nutrition will yield higher test scores and more graduates – have also proven elusive. Although it’s clear that hunger can distract students, no district uses breakfast as its main strategy for boosting academics.

For the past four or five years, Wake County schools have offered universal free breakfast at five low-performing schools targeted for improvement. There, too, about half the kids now eat.

Wake child nutrition director Marilyn Moody chuckled when asked if there’s any evidence that breakfast has made a difference.

“It’s a global effort,” she said of Wake’s Renaissance Schools program. “It’s for the whole child, not just their tummy.”

Growing movement

The federally subsidized school breakfast program has been growing steadily since it was introduced in the 1970s, though it has never been as popular as school lunches. In 2012, the USDA spent almost $3.3 billion for subsidized breakfasts, including $108.5 million in North Carolina and $69.6 million in South Carolina.

While children of all incomes eat lunch in the cafeteria, CMS nutrition officials say most of the students who get breakfast are those who qualify for subsidies based on family income – this year, a family of four making less than $43,568 is eligible. Other students could always buy breakfast, but few did.

The result: Some children felt like eating breakfast at school was a sign of being poor and would rather go hungry, CMS officials say.

In June, the CMS board voted 7-1 to offer free breakfast to everyone. One big selling point: The district wouldn’t have to ask county commissioners for money to cover expenses because federal subsidies are expected to be enough.

Those subsidies range from 28 cents per breakfast for students who don’t qualify for lunch aid to $1.89 for the most impoverished students in high-poverty schools. The state also kicks in a small supplement.

Last year, CMS spent $1.61 per breakfast, and the staff hopes to bring that down to $1.41 this year. Meanwhile, the goal is to get more kids eating breakfast, especially the low-income students who are most likely to be hungry and who bring in the most federal money. Hobbs said the budget calls for 53,000 students who qualify for free lunches to eat breakfast, double last year’s level. If the plan pans out, CMS will get more than $18 million in federal money for breakfasts.

However, if the growth in breakfast eaters is skewed toward the students who get the lowest subsidy, CMS could come up short and have to cover the gap.

Pros and cons

Board members voiced enthusiasm, along with some reservations.

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

Richard McElrath raised questions about kids eating at home and at school but voted for the program. Tom Tate also approved but cautioned against assuming the program is truly free. “The cost still comes from us because it’s taxpayer money,” he said.

Amelia Stinson-Wesley cast the only “no” vote. She said recently that she considers the breakfast program a limited approach that “doesn’t solve a systemic problem of food insecurity” and said she doesn’t like the idea of encouraging kids to grab food and eat in the classroom.

“I’m very passionate about food and wholesome eating,” she said. “I believe in whole foods, organic foods, locally grown foods.” But for students who are truly going hungry, she added, “something is better than nothing, obviously.”

Many conservatives in North Carolina have been skeptical of the federal lunch subsidies, raising questions about the number of fraudulent or erroneous applications. USDA rules limit the extent of auditing local districts can do.

The Carolina Journal, a publication of the Raleigh-based John Locke Foundation, has done a series of critical articles. But Terry Stoops, the foundation’s director of educational studies, said this week there’s been little reason to scrutinize the universal breakfast plan, which isn’t directly tied to income eligibility.

Grab and go

Each school in CMS has worked out its own strategy for offering breakfast to everyone. Some have students eat in the cafeteria, while others offer a “grab and go” breakfast to take to class.

Although students don’t pay, they do have to enter a four-digit CMS identification number so the district can file for reimbursement.

At Elizabeth Traditional Elementary School, a split-level building near uptown Charlotte, the trek to breakfast had always been a challenge.

Bus riders had to wend their way along hallways and stairwells to get to the cafeteria, then eat their breakfast and get to class. That required lots of adults stationed along the way to supervise.

This year, prodded by the breakfast expansion and a cut in teacher assistants, Principal Susan Spencer-Smith literally rolled out a new approach. An unused high school pizza cart was spruced up with Elizabeth Traditional colors and the school’s logo to become a breakfast kiosk stationed at the bus entry.

Children line up and choose a bagged breakfast: a hot item, such as a biscuit or pancakes, cold cereal or graham crackers and yogurt. They eat in the classroom, put the trash back into the bag and roll it up. Custodians make rounds right after breakfast to pick up trash, Spencer-Smith said.

The number of students eating at school increased steadily during the first several days of the school year, Spencer-Smith said: “Parents and students are beginning to learn more and more that they have breakfast automatically.”

Amy Harkey, CMS assistant director of child nutrition, said she expects to see participation build over the first couple of months. The popularity of school breakfasts varies by school, she and Hobbs said. Many schools that start at 9:15 a.m., as Elizabeth Traditional does, have lower participation, presumably because families have more time to eat at home.

High school participation also tends to be low, they said, even though most start classes at 7:15 a.m. South Mecklenburg High Principal Maureen Furr said bus riders are more likely to eat at school, while students who drive are more likely to pick up something on the way in.

Some of the seniors who attended a recent news briefing at South Meck said they like having the option, even if they only eat every now and then.

Tatianaide Medina, 17, said she learned the value of a school breakfast when she volunteered with a summer tutoring program at nearby Quail Hollow Middle School. She saw the students brighten as they started their day with a meal. “They were more motivated,” she said.

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