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Guest blog: High-fructose columnists and school breakfast expansion

By Guest blogger on Oct 21, 2009 08:33 AM

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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Comments (4)

Submitted by Mr. Boyle (not verified) on October 21, 2009 12:24 pm

Couldn't you have responded with "visiting a school, eating a typical school breakfast, interviewing children (yes, ask them why they don't eat breakfast at home), and consulting a nutritionist for comment on its content and appeal." instead.(paraphrased) I get that Heller didn't do a great job. But you didn't exactly get it right either. If you want breakfast for all who need it in Philadelphia, facts and collaboration work better than ed-op critiques.
I have been in charge of managing breakfast for certain grades at my school for three years now. I don't think what the children are eating is nearly as healthy as it could. I don't think we should be talking about making the school day longer if we spend instructional time feeding children breakfast. I'm all for breakfast to be served in school before the first bell to whoever wants it. Principals should be held accountable for the service being available, but not for attaining a certain number of meals eaten. If you wanted to hold principals accountable for the number of meals eaten, then you would have to study exactly which students always need it, which might need it, and which will never eat it. That study sounds really expensive. And unless you make the database easily accessible across the district, the transitory nature of our students would render such study meaningless. If there is a structure in place that can find out throughout this year and every year which kids need breakfast, than you can hold principals accountable. Again, I believe that every school should be serving breakfast before the opening bell to whoever wants to come. But there is where responsibility for feeding should end.

Submitted by Erika Owens (not verified) on October 21, 2009 3:14 pm

You make a lot of important points about tracking, follow up, and food quality. Maybe one of the benefits of holding principals accountable will be to increase pressure to improve those areas. 

Part of the problem with just serving breakfast before class is that fewer students participate--and the students missing out are likely to be the ones in most need of food. Serving breakfast in class also helps  with the tracking since you have all the kids in a classroom and can pretty easily tell who is there rather than sorting through a whole lunchroom or data for the whole school.

It'll be interesting to see what these principal report cards look like anyhow. Maybe there will be a section to give some context to the grades. So next year, a breakfast participation grade of C with "Good effort, needs improvement in x, y, z" would help explain the grade more and give a principal, and parents, more information than just a big fat F, or even an A.

Submitted by Mr. Boyle (not verified) on October 21, 2009 7:44 pm

It is my understanding that all students in the district punch in their student ID numbers when they get a meal in the school. The tracking is there. Identify whether the right kids are getting breakfast is the tricky part. If the district could actual keep up with identify who needs breakfast, it could be treated the same way as truancy. If your child is in school and does not get to breakfast so many interventions are put into place. In fact you could make breakfast part of the CSAP process. I think this would be a nightmare for teachers, but perhaps parent ombudsmen could handle this issue. The kickback on the issue is sensical, education workers already do so much with not enough. If you what to do something extra (breakfast) you need to give something extra too.

Submitted by Philly High School Teacher (not verified) on October 22, 2009 8:38 am

While I support encouraging everyone to eat breakfast, making the principal accountable is another obligation on a very full agenda. Will this additional requirement be for all principals in all schools or only neighborhood schools which offer free lunch/breakfast for all students?

If this is not for all principals, it is another "pass" for principals in magnet schools and/or neighborhood schools which do not qualify for free breakfast/lunch for all students (e.g. Meredith and Greenfield K-8 in Center City, Masterman, SLA, etc.).

Also, having students eat during 1st period in a high school will impact the amount of time left for instruction. While one may argue eating is more important, then the teacher can't be held accountable for a full 48 minutes of instruction.

Getting students, especially high school students, to come early for breakfast will take more than a few pancakes.

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