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Wide variation in breakfast participation

By Dale Mezzacappa on Apr 2, 2009 09:26 AM

Principals may benefit from starting the day with a bowl of Wheaties.

At Thurgood Marshall elementary school in Olney, a K-8 school with an enrollment of about 600, more than nine out of ten students eat breakfast in school every day. Compare that to Andrew Morrison elementary just a few blocks away, a school with similar demographics -- a mostly African American and Latino population, 85 percent of which are poor enough to qualify for free and reduced price lunch -- where only about 30 percent of the students eat breakfast at school.

These differences are outlined in a document from the state Department of Education that tracks participation in school breakfast, which is free and available to all students. (The state records how many meals are served during the month of October. Click on the document to see a school by school breakdown of breakfast and lunch participation.) Advocates who have worked with the District on child nutrition issues, while happy that the District has made free breakfast universal, are concerned that participation rates vary so widely from school to school. 

Morrison stands at about the citywide average, which is dragged down by low participation in many middle and high schools. There are exceptions to this trend, however. Pepper and Tilden middle schools, for instance, have participation rates of more than 80 percent. And a higher percentage of students eat breakfast at South Philly High, 30 percent, than at some of the city's most impoverished elementary schools. At McMichael in Mantua, for instance, just 27 percent of children eat breakfast at school; at William Dick in North Philadelphia, it's 26 percent. Then there are schools like Fairhill, M.Hall Stanton, Wister, and Willard that make it a priority.

Advocates pointed out with some consternation that principals seemed eager to get their students breakfast on the days of PSSA testing, but not so eager on other days. The District's entire school nutrition program, in which most children are entitled to free breakfast and lunch, might be in jeopardy due to proposed Bush-driven changes in the federal Department of Agriculture to make students verify family incomes rather than assume they qualify if they attend certain schools. All this needs to be sorted out.

In the meantime, principals who think getting breakfast for the highest possible number of kids is too much of a bother need to eat their Wheaties and get their own brains in gear. 

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Comments (24)

Submitted by Jonathan Stein, Community Legal Services (not verified) on April 3, 2009 5:26 pm

The Mezzacappa story on school breakfast differential enrollments is a great public service. It would be useful if The Notebook annually or semi-annually published the school meals enrollments per eligible student population for each school i n the District, including charter schools.
Free school lunch and breakfast take-up can no longer be left as a laissez-faire item for local schools given the proven critical role good nutrition, including a nutritious breakfast has on school performance and cognitive development, as well as a factor in decreasing lateness and absences.
A more structured delivery of breakfasts is needed to insure high take-up, as well as holding principals accountable for performance here just like its done for testing and other key achievement goals. Promoting awareness by parents of the free school lunch and breakfast program, sharing school participation rates with them, and otherwise engaging them in the participation effort, would also be welcome.
Having 1/3 of eligible children eating a school breakfast is simply an unacceptable but remediable fact of life in our schools.
Jonathan Stein, General Counsel
Community Legal Services, Inc.

Submitted by f (not verified) on April 3, 2009 10:47 pm

The fact that our school offers free breakfast and lunch is well published to our parent community; Breakfast is served from 8:00 to 8:30 am each school day. There are far fewer students on average who eat breakfast in our city schools than eat lunch. Mainly this difference is due to the fact that students have to come to school before the start of the school day in order to eat breakfast. There is a much higher participation in the lunch program by students. All students are already in school during the lunch periods as part of the regular school day.

The school day begins at 8:30. More precisely the instructional day begins at 8:30. This is an instructional day that is the shortest of instructional days in the state. We could ensure that almost all students have the benefit of eating breakfast by serving breakfast once everyone arrives in the classroom. This of course would mean a minimal loss of 15 to 30 minutes of instructional time every day. It would also require a sufficient number of aides to move trays of food and milk crates to 20 classrooms. Classroom teachers would have to be willing to supervise the distribution of food and monitor students as they eat the meals. It would require a greater effort to clean up twenty classrooms as opposed to one cafeteria. Rodent problems that are already difficult to deal with in school buildings are made even more difficult by spreading food garbage throughout the whole school building every day.

We could solve these problems by including breakfast in the school day by increasing the length of the school day. We could provide a budget to schools that allows principals to hire more paraprofessional staff. We could negotiate with teachers to assume breakfast duty. Or we can simply say hold the principal responsible for making sure that one more inequality of resource allocation is dealt with or else.

Currently in Philadelphia, principals have an undefined workday. They serve at the will of the superintendent at their school location. They are held accountable for everything, (that which is within their control and that which is beyond their control) which occurs in their school.

What is the best solution for ensuring that we recruit and maintain talented school leadership? Do we provide principals the resources they need to provide the programs we desire?
Or do we insist that our school leaders do more on less by threatening and bullying principals under the guise of holding them accountable?

Submitted by Paul Socolar on April 3, 2009 11:00 pm

Thanks for these valuable comments. You make a good case that it's not helpful to reduce this problem to a lack of will on the part of principals or to immediately pressure all schools to devote class time to serving breakfast. But the fact that participation rate in the breakfast program ranges from as low as 2 percent at some schools all the way up to 92 percent does make it apparent that the emphasis on breakfast must vary tremendously from school to school.

Given the legitimate concerns about instructional time and the hazards of serving food in classrooms, it does make sense to determine whether any schools are achieving high participation rates with a before-school program in the cafeteria, and to learn more about how they achieve that participation. Maybe can be done with the help of additional paraprofessional staff, more communications with parents, or other more creative strategies.

Undoubtedly there are measures the District could devote resources to ... advocates have been pointing out that there has been no citywide PR blitz about the availability of free breakfast at every school.

Let's not just pin the whole problem on principals. But I think the stories about the emphasis on serving breakfast during testing time struck a chord with people - we do need our students to be at their best for learning, not just for testing. Let's hope someone in or outside the District can tell us more about what the promising practices are for getting high breakfast participation rates, and whether it's possible without wiping out a big chunk of instructional time.

Submitted by EnoughIsEnuff!!! (not verified) on April 4, 2009 1:21 pm

One thing the PSD needs to end is their practice of shifting good principals from the school they have turned around to a new problem school. Let good principals enjoy the fruits of their labors. If they have "fixed" a school then they should be allowed to run it. Take any principal trainees and assign them to these schools to learn how it was done. Then put them in a problem schools. This current policy punishes good principals for doing a good job and only serves to alienate them. As a result many will leave the profession or the district.

Submitted by Paul Socolar on April 4, 2009 12:00 pm

Al Lubrano in the Inquirer reports today that eating breakfast in first class of the day with a teacher present will be counted as instructional time by the PA Dept. of Education.

"The new ruling is important because many principals typically have resisted in-class breakfast service, saying it detracted from instructional time.

Numerous studies show that breakfast is vital to learning and that in-class service has proved the most effective means of getting children to eat the meal, said Leah Harris, a department spokeswoman.Seizing on the change, Philadelphia advocates for the hungry say the city school district should mandate breakfast service during the first class every day.

"It should be required throughout the system," said Jonathan Stein, a lawyer with Community Legal Services long involved in school-meal programs. "And principals should be evaluated on whether they ensure children eat breakfast.""

This ruling clears a roadblock, but it will be important to hear more from the state and the District about whether and how schools can implement this with minimal disruption to the school day and what resources they need to deal with the complication of serving food in every classroom.

As our previous commenter, f, notes, implementing this step may draw attention to the need for a longer school day in Philadelphia, which is not something that will come for free.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 10, 2009 9:18 pm

Thinking outside the "box" might be a great way to tackle growing the school breakfast program.

Having worked in the Head Start universe, where breakfast *is* served in class, I can say that breaking bread together is a meaningful way to start the morning for young children. However, the program that exists today is challenged by the following:

The constraints on programs to provide "real" food without real kitchens makes these breakfasts noticeably less healthy that the photo accompanying the article. Pancakes, waffles and french toast sticks covered in artificial syrup or corn syrup based jelly? Cheesy grits? While filling, these are not the ideal nutrition. There's growing research on the negative effect of high sugar diets on child's attention and retention in the classroom.

And what about the cost (environmental and otherwise) of all of the throwaway packaging? Average waste from one meal for EACH child: place mat, napkin, plastic utensils, milk and juice cartons, paper plate. In addition, there is cardboard packaging to heat the food in the ovens. Or plastic throw away cereal bowls...

Check out "No Mystery: Fresh Food Needed" in the latest Rethinking Schools for some insight into the nutrition gap in our current school food programs.

Submitted by Paul Socolar on April 11, 2009 12:48 am

from said Rethinking Schools article:

In a Feb. 20 New York Times op-ed, Alice Waters, president of The Chez Panisse Foundation, and Katrina Heron, director of the foundation and a co-producer of, wrote: "How much would it cost to feed 30 million American schoolchildren a wholesome meal? It could be done for about $5 per child, or roughly $27 billion a year, plus a one-time investment in real kitchens."

Expensive, yes, but the long-term benefits outweigh the cost, they added.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on April 11, 2009 12:03 pm

I don't agree with the view that eating breakfast in class will detract from instructional time or overburden school staff.
Typically the first few minutes of the day are spent taking roll, going over the business of the day, listening to school announcments, pledging the flag etc....none of which are incompatible with distributing and eating breakfast. Journal writing, sustained silent reading or an activity the engages students in discusssion are things that easily can be combined with eating. The logistics of distributing the food and cleaning up don't present any great challenge, particularly in well managed classrooms where there are established routines. Student volunteers can pick up the crates and bring them to the classroom, as they do in manyschools during testing time. To my mind this is any easy one.

Submitted by mimi (not verified) on June 5, 2014 11:01 am
I cannot stress enough how important a good meal is. There should be no cut backs in money for food. It's absurd. jocuri imbracat
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