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Guest blog: High-fructose columnists and school breakfast expansion

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Welcome to the guest blogger section of the Notebook blog.

This week's post is from Jonathan Stein of Community Legal Services.


With only 1 of 3 eligible Philadelphia school children getting a free school breakfast, the District's new expansion initiative will address the inequity of school breakfast participation. Some schools with high numbers of low-income students achieve over 80% breakfast participation, while other schools with the same demographic profile have 20% or less in breakfast take-up. Each school will now have reasonable and achievable performance targets over two years that should increase overall breakfast participation by 35% across the District.

The District's admirable initiative will, for the first time, build in local school and principal accountability. It does this through a criterion on the principal's "Report Card" to advance the goals of increased student academic achievement, improved classroom behavior, and nutritional health.

However, the School District has done little to date to explain this change to a larger public, a vacuum being filled by misinformation and the class biases of a few voices. Inquirer Metro columnist Karen Heller wrote an ill-informed column (there was an earlier op-ed from a blogging school teacher, Christopher Paslay). But the District Communications Office has not been proactive about this reform, instead keeping its head down in silence and being forced to play only defense. This is a disservice to school administrators, teachers, and students.

Lost,or hardly mentioned amidst the reflex criticism of some critics, are the extraordinary benefits of the school breakfast program.

For a masterful summary of the science and academic benefits of school breakfasts, see the statement Dr. Mariana Chilton, Drexel's director of the Philadelphia GROW Clinic Project/Witness, gave last May before the SRC, and a PowerPoint presentation put together by school nutrition educators for school personnel. Anyone offering their two cents on the school breakfast program should be required to read these items first. In sum, a school breakfast gives a child's brain the nutrients needed to get the day going, and creates the energy for mental and physical school activities.

Heller, largely oblivious to the above findings, knocked off the sarcastic column on school breakfasts where she apparently never chose to consult with anyone with direct knowledge of the breakfast program, not the School Food Services Office, nor Public Citizens for Children and Youth, nor Community Legal Services, nor Prof. Chilton at Drexel University's School of Public Health, nor the Greater Phila. Coalition Against Hunger,  nor any nutrition educators. 

Her juices got going from a press release from the mayor's office touting a clever corporate PR scheme from Pinnacle  Foods--an  "Aunt Jemina  Frozen Breakfast Education Day."  The company apparently brought $2,000 to the Franklin Edmonds Elementary School to promote its frozen pancake concoction.

Heller never asked whether this pancake product was even distributed as part of the District's city-wide school breakfast program. According to the Food Services Office, it is not and is therefore completely irrelevant to the breakfast initiative -- unless one wants a jumping off place to ask if requiring principals to enforce a beneficial federal program is making children "wards" of the state. The column gives much play to the complaint that principals already have too much to do and suggests this is another questionable mandate. She quotes the head of the principals' association saying that  "breakfast is one of those things over which we have minimal control."

Yes, a principal cannot ensure that a child eats breakfast at home. But he or she can quite easily, as many schools across the city have already shown, ensure that a breakfast is served in school. A principal supportive of this goal can exert minimal energy by arranging with the Food Services Office to serve breakfast either in a central location or in the classroom. The PA Dept. of Education has even said it is OK serve breakfast during instructional time.

Heller paid obligatory lip service to the "admirable goal" of "healthy, well-nourished children." In the same paragraph, though, she bemoans that these children will become "wards" of the state with "all" the burden for good nutrition placed on teachers and administrators.

Does a Meals on Wheels program, allowing infirm elderly to live independently, render them "wards" of the state?

Does a paratransit program providing transportation to disabled people, put "all" the burden on government-funded transit, relieving the disabled and elderly of their responsibility to roll out of their houses in their wheelchairs to their destinations?

Finally, if  Heller prefers to write about the content and appeal of school meals served -- as opposed to the food not served across the District -- we  welcome some real legwork. She should visit a school, eat a typical school breakfast, interview children (yes, ask them why they don't eat breakfast at home), and consult a nutritionist for comment on its content and appeal. 

And, if the cost of school breakfast and school lunch reimbursement  is a factor, as she suggested, she should seriously explore this. This would be journalism that serves a public interest. Simply letting a principals' representative complain, and running off with a phantom issue that is generated by a clever, corporate publicist, is not.    


The guest blog section is a place for people, other than our regular cast of bloggers, to share their views. (See our "About Our Blog" note at the top, right.) Got something you'd like to write about? Email us with a pitch, idea, or a completed post. We're just launching this feature so feedback and suggestions are greatly appreciated.

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