Participation improves in Allegheny County for its school breakfast programs
March 6, 2016 12:00 AM
On the school's Steeler dress-up day, an Aiken Elementary School student gets her Grab-n-Go breakfast during an event to celebrate National School Breakfast Week in 2014
By Kate Giammarise and Molly Born / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Just about everybody knows kids are supposed to get a good breakfast, but it’s not always that easy to get them to eat it, even those who most need to do so.
Pennsylvania fares poorly compared with other states in the number of eligible children receiving a free or reduced-cost school breakfast, but participation in such programs is growing in Allegheny County schools, according to two reports examining breakfast offerings and how to best reach eligible children with a nutritious start to the day.
The Keystone State ranked 40th out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia in the percentage of eligible schoolchildren receiving a federally subsidized school breakfast, according to a report released last month from the Food Research and Action Center, based in Washington, D.C.
A healthy breakfast is considered a critical part of a child’s ability to learn. Teachers say the morning meals help students to concentrate and lead to better academic performance and improved behavior in the classroom, according to the No Kid Hungry campaign.
Pennsylvania did improve its standing from last year’s report, moving to 40th from 42nd place.
“There’s definitely a lot of room for improvement, but Pennsylvania is moving in the right direction,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs at the Food Research and Action Center.
The study examined school breakfast participation, using free and reduced-price lunch participation as a benchmark, because that program has broad participation by low-income children across states. Nationally, 54.3 children participated in the school breakfast program last school year for every 100 participating in school lunch, the study found. In Pennsylvania, that number is 46.5; in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, 71.8 children participate in breakfast for every 100 kids participating in the school lunch program.
Within Allegheny County, participation in the program is growing, and more districts are serving breakfast to a higher percentage of students, according to a study that will be released Monday from Pittsburgh-based Allies for Children to coincide with National School Breakfast Week.
In 2013, only one Allegheny County school district served breakfast to at least 50 percent of its students; by 2015 that number had risen to four districts — Pittsburgh Public Schools, Cornell, East Allegheny and Woodland Hills school districts, according to the report’s findings.
“I think there’s a new realization to how critical these [breakfast] programs can be so kids can get what they need and can learn,” said Erika Fricke, health policy director at Allies for Children.
Many of the schools locally that saw the highest increase in participation used the Community Eligibility Provision, a federal law change in 2010 that allowed districts and individual schools to provide school breakfasts and lunch at no cost to all students, and eliminated considerable administrative paperwork for schools and parents. Some schools served breakfast in the traditional cafeteria setting before school; others had programs that allowed children to eat in the classroom at the beginning of the day.
Grandview Upper Elementary School in the Highlands School District was featured as a case study in the report. The district placed fourth for the largest percent change in total students eating school breakfast out of the 41 school systems analyzed in Allegheny County. Of the 227 individual county schools in the Allies for Children study, it ranked 11th with the largest percentage increase of students participating.
The organization credited much of that success to the school’s Breakfast in the Classroom program, which launched last fall and allows students to eat in homeroom.
“Trust me, it wasn’t an easy start,” said Sharon Conway, Highlands food service director. But now 85 percent of students participate in school breakfast, compared with 27 percent before the program began, she said.
Grandview Upper acted as a pilot program among elementary schools at Highlands. The district also offers its middle and high school students a “grab-and-go” program similar to one Brentwood middle and high schools were praised for in the report.
“When I came here, we had 16 kids coming in for breakfast,” said Brentwood food service director Deb Kendra. “I thought it was a disgrace.”
Now, as soon as kids enter through the front door, they are greeted by a cafeteria worker with a cart of cold breakfast items. Participation has soared, she said.
Although the grab-and-go concept was new to some local districts last year, it’s an effort Moss Side and Gateway middle schools in the Gateway School District introduced years ago.
Martin Lorenzo, food service director, said his team can tell when interest in school breakfast wanes. To shake up its grab-and-go, food service officials two years ago began incorporating popular hot breakfast items previously available only in the cafeteria. When the line started backing up at Gateway Middle, causing students to turn away, they added a second queue and filmed a YouTube video to play during announcements notifying them of the change.
And at Cleveland Steward Junior Elementary School in the same district — where breakfast participation rates have been consistently strong — the school day was sometimes delayed by up to 10 minutes while students finished eating, prompting the start of its own breakfast-in-the classroom program.
“When they come off the bus at Cleveland Steward they go straight to the classroom and breakfast is waiting for them,” Mr. Lorenzo said. “It couldn’t have been more successful.”
Curtistine Walker, food service director for Pittsburgh Public Schools, said breakfast participation has been steady across the district, with some schools seeing an increase.
Those that have seen greater participation point to a combination of factors, including grab-and-go options, no meal cutoff for late students and options kids like, Ms. Walker said.
“That means the children aren’t going hungry, and that’s what we’re here to do.”
Kate Giammarise: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise. Molly Born: email@example.com, 412-263-1944 or on Twitter @molly_born.
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