D.C. schools offer students breakfast in the classroom

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 16, 2009

The lights are still off in Alex Brown's fourth-grade classroom at Friendship Public Charter School's Southeast Elementary Academy just before 8 a.m. as he tends to an integral part of his early morning routine: placing small purple-and-yellow boxes called "breakfast breaks" in front of each seat.

It's a modest meal: cereal (Lucky Charms on this day), graham crackers, juice and milk. But for many of his math students, who will soon be filing in, it is more than they often get at home.

"We have some students who need this," Brown said. "If you haven't eaten, the last thing you think about is learning."

Educators and health experts have long stressed the link between breakfast and academic performance, reduced obesity rates and other benefits. Free breakfast is available to the 45,000 students in D.C. public schools and some of the 28,000 in public charter schools, and much of the cost is reimbursed by the federal government.

But a handful of D.C. schools looking to increase the number of children who eat breakfast are starting to serve it in classrooms, incorporating it into the first 15 minutes of the day.

Educators say that a classroom breakfast helps minimize two traditional obstacles to getting more kids to eat. Many students from low-income families who eat free and reduced-price lunches underwritten by the federal government don't take advantage of breakfast. It often requires them to go early to the school cafeteria, and it can carry the stigma of a government program, experts say.

Jerry Haley, director of food and nutrition for Friendship's eight schools in the District and Baltimore, said attendance at Southeast's cafeteria breakfasts was so light that "we would end up throwing away more than we would serve."

Other students arrive late. Having food for them in classrooms gives them a chance to put something in their stomachs before starting the day.

Southeast officials said that since launching classroom breakfasts two years ago, participation in the morning meal has dramatically increased at the K-6 school of more than 500 students, which is in a converted former Safeway off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Friendship's Southeast is one of eight D.C. public charter schools that are trying the idea. D.C. public schools began it on a pilot basis this month at Garfield Elementary in Southeast.

"We intend to assess the results and determine next steps accordingly," schools spokeswoman Jennifer Calloway said.

Maryland Meals for Achievement, a state project started in 1998, serves classroom breakfasts in 198 schools, including 48 in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. School systems in New York City, Newark, Minneapolis and Boston also are trying it.

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