Here’s an issue I’ve been wanting to write about for a while: the way in which universal, in-class breakfast programs like the one in my district (Houston ISD), can create a conflict between two equally legitimate goals: alleviating childhood hunger and preventing childhood obesity.
The National School Lunch Program allows schools to provide breakfast, but it’s long been known that when breakfast is served in the cafeteria, economically disadvantaged students often don’t eat it, either out of fear of stigma or because they have no time to get to the cafeteria before school starts.
To remedy this problem, some districts, particularly those in large urban areas, have adopted universal, in-class breakfast programs whereby all students are able to obtain and eat a free breakfast in their classrooms at the start of the school day. At my child’s elementary school, this is accomplished by placing several meal carts in the hallways before the first bell rings. Children who want the meal obtain their breakfast card (which is different from their lunch card) from a volunteer-staffed table and present it to the cafeteria worker manning a cart. The food is then taken to the child’s desk and eaten in the first few minutes of class time.
When our superintendent, Dr. Terry Grier, first instituted this program here in Houston, it was (and remains for some) a highly controversial move. There have been legitimate concerns about food waste, sanitation problems, lost instructional time, and the quality of the food served (though it has improved somewhat since the early days of the program, when the inclusion of daily animal crackers in the breakfast was what actually motivated me to start this blog.) On the other hand, I’m told that principals at Houston schools with large populations of economically disadvantaged children enthusiastically laud the program, citing increased attendance, reduced tardiness and fewer discipline problems.
But one of the complaints I most often hear from parents at more affluent schools is that their kids are “double-dipping” at breakfast, eating a full meal at home and then eating some or all of the school meal as well. In an age when childhood obesity is a real concern, giving kids two breakfasts a day is obviously problematic. And apparently the New York City Council has slowed the roll-out of in-class breakfast in that city for just that reason. The New York Times reported last Friday:
The city’s health department hit the pause button after a study found that the Breakfast in the Classroom program, now used in 381 of the city’s 1,750 schools, was problematic because some children might be “inadvertently taking in excess calories by eating in multiple locations” — in other words, having a meal at home, or snacking on the way to school, then eating again in school.
It seems to me that there’s an obvious solution to this problem, one my child’s elementary school principal has employed from the start: if parents don’t want their child eating the school breakfast for any reason, they have the option to have the child’s breakfast card removed from the stack of available meal cards; without the card, no meal can be obtained. And if the parent changes his or her mind on a given day, he or she can send a signed note to that effect and a meal will be served.
But what’s troubled me for some time is how rarely this solution seems to be employed in my district. On a purely anecdotal basis I’ve been told by many parents that the choice to opt their children out of breakfast has never been offered to them by their respective principals. And the district has done nothing (of which I’m aware) to make the option widely known to the public.
And that leads to the question of money. School food service departments generally welcome universal breakfast programs because they bring in more federal reimbursement dollars, particularly in districts with large numbers of children who qualify for free or reduced price lunches (true of over 80% of students in Houston ISD.) As the Food Research and Action Center noted in a a comprehensive report on school breakfast:
If states could increase participation so they reach 60 children with breakfast for every 100 that also eat lunch, FRAC estimates that an additional 2.4 million low-income children would be added to the breakfast program and states would have received an additional $583 million in child nutrition funding.
Thus, districts with in-class breakfast programs have an economic incentive to serve as many meals as possible, regardless of whether some meals are being served to kids who have no need for it — and whose parents would greatly prefer they not partake of it.
I’m going to inquire further in my district about the availability of a breakfast opt-out and will report back here. And for those of you in districts with universal, in-class breakfast, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the program.
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