Meal program aims to keep kids hungry for learning
D.C. schools try to boost participation in free service with classroom breakfasts

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.

The initiatives are part of a broader push to emphasize breakfast. Some school districts are experimenting with "grab and go" meals that allow students to pick up a boxed breakfast in the cafeteria and eat it in a classroom or elsewhere in the building. For middle and high school students, some districts are piloting "second-chance breakfasts,' in which students are allowed time after their first-period classes to get food.

Haley said that principals and teachers initially resisted classroom breakfasts. There were concerns about trash disposal, increased janitorial costs and giving oversubscribed instructors another task.

But Marcella Windley, who teaches second and third grade at Friendship Southeast, said that the program "works perfectly" and that it has done away with many midmorning stomachaches and trips to the nurse's office.

Friendship Southeast staff members also said they think it's no coincidence that the school ranks in the top third of D.C. schools in reading and math proficiency, with significant growth in the last three years. "It's been a substantial change," Windley said.

As her 19 students walked in at 8 a.m., they quietly opened their boxes and tucked into the cereal, reading or talking quietly as classmates distributed cartons of milk. Windley uses the interval as "quiet time" and as a warm-up to a brief yoga session before class starts.

Third-grader Jayquan Byrd, 8, who said he'd had a Pop-Tart at home, said it was a good way to start the day.

"It helps me," he said.

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