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head topic State lags on school breakfast

September 22, 2018

Lunchtime has been part of school culture for decades, with districts across the country providing low-cost or free lunches to students since 1946.

But offering breakfast—the so-called “most important meal of the day”— is less common. And it’s more unusual for students — even those from low-income families — to eat school breakfast when their districts offer the program.

A recent study from End Hunger Connecticut showed the number of districts providing breakfast to students is growing, but the state still lags behind the rest of the country.

Shannon Yearwood, executive director of End Hunger Connecticut, said this is due in part to the cost to rural towns and because Connecticut started paying attention to the issue relatively recently.

“We could do better,” she said. “What I would love to see is for us to catch up to the rest of the nation and continue to see some strong growth.”

Connecticut ranked 45th in the country for schools offering both lunch and breakfast, with just under 85 percent of schools in the state providing both meals, compared to 92.5 percent nationally, during the 2016-17 year.

Most districts in the Danbury area offer breakfast to students, but the majority aren’t eating it at school.

This could be in part because of the complicated logistics of serving breakfast, said Joe Martino, director of finance for Danbury.

In Danbury, students eat their breakfast in the cafeteria before class, rather than being served in the classroom.

“Breakfast in the classroom is problematic,” Martino said. “It does create additional distractions in the classroom.”

If buses or parents run late, then fewer students have a chance to grab a bite to eat before class, he said.

“Short of making drastic changes in schedules, I don’t think there is any way to drive more people through the lines,” Martino said.

Because of the short time window, Yearwood said she recommends a “grab and go” model, where students take their food back to the classroom, instead of eating in the cafeteria.

Still, Danbury’s program is much more popular than other districts. Almost 27 percent of the overall school population ate school breakfast in 2016-17, while 30 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals participated.

About 54 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced-price meals in 2016-17.

But nearby Newtown is among the districts with the lowest percentage of students eating school breakfast

Just over 1 percent of Newtown students who qualified for free or reduced-price meals participated during the 2016-17 academic years.

Less than half of 1 percent of the overall student body ate school breakfast.

Why the lag?

Yearwood said many people still think parents should provide breakfast for their kids.

“Some folks philosophically don’t believe schools should be serving breakfast,” she said.

The state paid little attention to school breakfast until 2009, when a coalition of state officials and advocates formed the Connecticut Breakfast Expansion Team, Yearwood said.

This group has stressed the benefits of school breakfast and supported towns as they try to implement programs.

“That is a resource that has been instrumental to the breakfast growth in the state,” she said.

During the 2015-16 and 2016-17 academic years, 30 more schools in Connecticut launched breakfast programs, making the meal available to 14,440 additional students. This is an increase of 16 percent, well over the national average, according to the Food Research and Action Center.

The Connecticut Breakfast Expansion Team has emphasized districts miss out on federal dollars by failing to serve breakfast to all students.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reimburses districts for each meal they serve, based on whether students receive free, reduced-price or full-price meals.

“We’re leaving money in D.C. with our districts’ names on it to provide the most important meal of the day,” Yearwood said.

Danbury, for example, could have received $1.8 million between the 2015-16 and 2016-17 years if every student who ate school lunch also ate school breakfast.

But for some small districts, this money does not cover the cost of the program, Yearwood said. Shipping food to rural towns can be more expensive and towns often need to coordinate with others, she said.

This is a problem for Housatonic Valley Regional High School, which serves students from Kent and other Litchfield County towns, Principal Ian Strever said.

“The nutritional guidelines are pretty stringent,” he said. “You have to balance that with your bottom line as part of your food program, unless you want to charge an exorbitant amount.”

Strever said Region 1 uses a consultant, who works with other Litchfield County schools, to help the district affordably meet nutritional rules.

The district has seen a large jump in the percentage of low-income students who eat school breakfast, going from about 6 percent in 2015-16 to 27 percent in 2016-17.

But Strever said the hike is likely because the school is so small that a handful of students throw off the numbers.

‘Ready to learn’

Expanding school breakfast could help students excel in the classroom.

Students who eat school breakfast score 17.5 percent higher on standardized math tests and attend 1.5 more school days per year, according to No Kid Hungry, an advocacy group.

“You learn more when you have a full stomach,” said Amanda Riley, Bethel’s food service director. “From a nutritional point of view, if the kids are fueled, they’re going to be ready to learn.”

In schools that offer breakfast, students are 14 percent less likely to visit the school nurse and 57 percent less likely to be disciplined, compared to children in schools where breakfast is not provided, according to End Hunger Connecticut.

School breakfast is also an important way to provide students with nutrition, Yearwood said.

“The school breakfast is going to be healthier and more balanced than what parents are going to be able to provide at home, and it’s going to be more cost effective in a lot of cases,” she said.

Thriving in Bethel

The program has caught on in Bethel, where almost 30 percent of low-income students ate school breakfast in 2016-17 and just under 12 percent of the overall student population did.

“The staff do an excellent job of menu selection,” Superintendent Christine Carver said. “They make things kids want to eat.”

At Rockwell and Berry elementary schools, children receive a bag of food to take to their classroom. In Johnson Elementary School and the middle and high schools, students eat in the cafeteria before going to their classrooms. Items on the menu include hot foods, such as a sausage, egg and cheese sandwich, and pre-packaged items, such as muffins, Riley said.

But Riley said it also helps that any student who qualifies for a reduced-price lunch gets breakfast for free, a policy she said other districts do not have.

In 2016-17, about 20 percent of Bethel students were eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

Riley said the program is most popular at Rockwell Elementary School. The other day, about 70 kids had breakfast at school, but at the end of last year about 100 kids participated.

No breakfast here

Ridgefield and Redding did not offer breakfast in 2016-17, but the percentage of low-income students was less than 3 percent in both towns.

Connecticut ranks 38th in the nation for low-income students eating school breakfast and lunch.

Only 51.6 percent of Connecticut students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals eat both breakfast and lunch at school, compared to 56.7 percent nationwide.

The Food Research and Action Center aims to bring that number up to 70 percent nationwide, which would bring school breakfast to 2.9 million children in the country and 31,550 students in the state.

In Brookfield, the district hopes to start serving breakfast this year or next year, but administrators are still working on the logistics.

The district was spurred by a hike in the number of kids who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, said Ken Post, business director.

Less than 10 percent of students were eligible in the 2016-17 year, compared to 19 percent this year, due to children qualifying through Medicaid.

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