Breakfast Brouhaha

More kids to get free school breakfast under law, but some districts feel financial squeeze

As the second phase of Colorado’s “Breakfast After the Bell” law takes effect this fall, thousands more low-income students will have access to free breakfast served during school hours.

It’s a development lauded by advocates who say the program improves attendance and achievement, but not always by administrators in the districts required to provide the universal free meals.

“We are taking money out of the classroom to pay for the Breakfast after the Bell program,” said Glenn Gustafson, chief financial officer in Colorado Springs District 11.

The law, passed in 2013, made Colorado one of the first states to require free breakfast after the start of the school day for all students in high-poverty schools. Now, about six states and Washington, D.C. have such mandates and several others have laws that recommend or subsidize breakfast after the bell programs.

This year, about 176,000 Colorado students attend schools that must offer breakfast after the bell.

Last year, the law affected 245 schools in about two-dozen districts and food service programs associated with charter schools. Those schools enrolled nearly 104,000 students. This year, there is more consternation from some quarters because more than 100 additional schools in 14 additional districts and an online charter school must meet the meal mandate if they haven’t already.

These new adopters have lower poverty rates than last year’s adopters.

That’s because the law initially applied only to schools where at least 80 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced-price meals. This year, that threshold drops to 70 percent.

That 10-percentage-point span, some food service directors say, is where the program becomes financially untenable because of the way federal meal reimbursements work and the added labor costs of providing more breakfasts.

Such concerns were the impetus for a failed push in the legislature last year to keep the threshold at 80 percent. District 11, which created a video about the issue, was one of the most vocal supporters of the defeated bill.

“It is taking resources from the general fund … It is a challenge for us,” said Gustafson.

Some districts break even

Not every district adding new schools under the law this year expects to face financial difficulties. It depends on a variety of factors, ranging from how the meals are served to the poverty levels in district schools.

In Jefferson County, two additional schools added Breakfast After the Bell this year, joining 19 from last year.

Linda Stoll, the district’s executive director of food services, said those two schools will lose money but the overall program won’t because there are so many schools above the 80 percent threshold.

“Two schools at 70 percent aren’t going to break the bank,” she said.

Still, she said, the new phase of the program is a hardship for districts because more students with the means to pay for breakfast are given the meal for free.

In District 11, Gustafson said one of the biggest financial factors is that more employees are qualifying for health insurance as their hours increase because of added breakfast prep duties. Administrators there calculated the program would lose around $54,000 this year.

Cate Blackford, child nutrition manager at Hunger Free Colorado, noted that some districts make breakfast after the bell programs work in schools that have far fewer than 70 percent of students eligible for free or reduced meals.

“Every school district is different. They have different populations, different equipment … different staffing needs, so it’s really hard to compare one to another,” she said.  “Our priority is to make sure we’re maximizing participation”

For each free or reduced-price meal, districts get reimbursed either $1.66 or $1.99, depending on poverty levels. They get reimbursed only 29 cents for the children who would normally pay full price for their meals.

In Mesa County Valley District 51, four new schools are providing Breakfast After the Bell this year, up from one last year.

Dan Sharp, the district’s director of food and nutrition services, said it’s financially viable because of the delivery model the district chose.

Under the law, districts have flexibility in how they get the meals to students. Common options include breakfast in the classroom, in the cafeteria or at mobile grab-and-go stations. The classroom version, which usually requires crates or coolers of food to be delivered all over a school, tends to be the most complicated and labor-intensive.

Here’s how Breakfast After the Bell works in District 51: A hot breakfast is offered in the cafeteria before school starts. It includes traditional breakfast foods like scrambled eggs, pancakes or breakfast burritos.

About 15 minutes into the school day, students who missed the cafeteria meal have the option of taking a bagged breakfast from a grab-and-go station near the main entrance. That breakfast typically includes a granola cookie that meets federal nutrition standards, milk and juice or fruit.

Sharp said with hot choices and more variety before school, students are incentivized to come early for breakfast. Indeed, most kids who ate through Breakfast After the Bell last year —about 45 percent of the student body—ate early in the cafeteria.

“To us, this is definitely a more cost effective model,” he said.

Why breakfast for more kids?

The idea behind Breakfast After the Bell is that students do better in class if they’re not hungry and that more students will eat school breakfast if its offered to all students for free during school hours, instead of just to the “poor kids” before school.

In fact, some food service administrators say they have seen big increases in participation since they switched from before-school breakfast to after-the-bell meals.

In Adams 12, the district began serving an additional 1,340 breakfasts a day last year after adding about a half-dozen schools to its breakfast-after-the-bell roster for a total of 12.

While Naomi Steenson, the district’s director of nutrition services, said some teachers have complained about the tedious job of counting and recording breakfast items taken in the classroom, they also see the benefits.

She said, “In the same breath, the teacher will say [students are] better behaved and…They are more apt to learn than if they’re hungry.”

But others say the breakfast increases aren’t dramatic.

Stoll, of Jeffco, believes it’s partly because of the false assumption that children from poor families don’t get breakfast at home. Some do, she said.

There’s also the fact that school breakfast choices, which must comply with federal nutrition standards, don’t always appeal to kids. For example, Stoll said many Hispanic students don’t like the whole grain tortillas used in school burritos because they are used to scratch-made white flour tortillas at home.

Coming to terms

After vigorous lobbying by some districts over the last two years to keep the Breakfast After the Bell eligibility threshold at 80 percent, there seems to be a growing acceptance that 70 percent is a fact of life.

Several administrators said this week that while they were unhappy with the lower percentage and the sense that they weren’t heard by law-makers, they are moving past the controversy.

Steenson, who testified before the legislature in favor of maintaining the 80 percent threshold, said, “I’ve said my piece….so now it’s just time to figure it out.”

She added, “I think it’s a great program. It resulted in some tension when the bill passed…but it is the right thing to do. It is good for kids.”

Blackford said Hunger Free Colorado is continuing conversations with the state’s School Nutrition Association to support districts in implementing Breakfast after the Bell.

“We want to make sure school nutrition service directors are set up for success.”

Gustafson said District 11, where eight schools must add the program this year, will abide by the law.

“We’re going to do it with all good intentions and due diligence,” he said. “…Whether I like it or not is moot.”

after parkland

‘We’re not kidding about this,’ says one teen leader of Memphis march on gun violence

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students in Indianapolis participate in the National School Walkout on March 14. This Saturday, students in the Memphis area will join a related March for Our Lives.

Memphis students were on spring break when this month’s national school walkout against gun violence happened, but 13-year-old Simran Bains is not going to miss her chance to publicly speak her mind.

PHOTO: Simran Bains
Eighth-grader Simran Bains is a student leader at Schilling Farms Middle School in Collierville.

An eighth-grader at Schilling Farms Middle School in Collierville, which is on the outskirts of Memphis, Simran is one of more than a dozen teenagers planning this Saturday’s March for Our Lives in Memphis.

She believes the student drive to protest gun violence following last month’s shooting of 17 people in Parkland, Florida, will not end anytime soon. Saturday’s march is part of a national movement organized by Parkland students to keep the conversation going about gun violence.

“I think this moment is different,” Simran said. “For every school shooting I can remember, it’s the same cycle. People are sad and shocked, but nothing ever changes.”

Students and other supporters will walk to the National Civil Rights Museum from Clayborn Temple, the historic assembling area for civil rights marches of the 1960s.

We spoke with Simran about what this march means to her and what she hopes Memphis learns from it. (This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.)

Why are you participating in Saturday’s march?

For me, I’ve always been a little louder than my peers. I’ve always been one to go on a tangent or two. When I heard about the march from a friend, it really stood out to me because it’s being organized by people my age. I have never seen people this young doing stuff like this. It was inspiring. There’s this perception in society that there’s a gun problem in America and that’s how the world will always be. But here, I’m seeing young people, who are the future of America, changing the world, and I wanted to be a part of that.

What message do you hope to send?

I hope people hear that even though we’re young, we’re not kidding about this, and we won’t back down. I want people in Shelby County to care more about this issue and listen to us. I hope people recognize that even if they have a right to protection, no one should have to fear for their life while receiving a public education. This is a serious issue. If we don’t do something, it only gets worse from here.

But I also hope we can broaden the conversation beyond school shootings. We have one of the highest gun homicide rates in the world, one of the highest suicide-by-gun rates in the world. We’re talking about people killing themselves, not just people killing people. Suicide and homicide aren’t often brought into this conversation. I hope that changes in Memphis.

I also want the march to remind us that we can’t become desensitized to gun violence. Whenever we read that someone was shot, we don’t always think how somebody just lost one of their own. That person will have to go home to empty bedrooms.

What specifically would you like to see happen in Tennessee?

I’m personally not one to advocate for the total removal of guns. I think that’s sometimes an assumption of people who are against protests like March for Our Lives. They assume we want to take all guns away. That’s not necessarily true. But I want a written exam to purchase a gun, like in Japan. I also want a longer wait time when you purchase a gun. I don’t think you should be able to walk into a gun shop and walk out the same day with a weapon. School shootings, or gun violence in general, can often be a spur-of-the-moment decision. What if the person had to wait a few days, weeks or months before they actually got that gun? Would they still feel the same way they did when they first went to buy the gun?

Have you or your family or your friends ever been personally touched by gun violence?

My family has never been a gun family. My parents are immigrants from India, and it’s just never been a thing for us. Going to school where I do, there’s a lot of political viewpoints. Some people are really pro owning guns, some are really against. And it’s an interesting place to talk about this. But also, I’ve gotten to know people from different backgrounds. I know people in Memphis and areas surrounding it who have lost someone to guns. I’ve known people who have lost loved ones to guns in homicides or gang violence.

Starting young

These 11-year-old Brooklyn students are asking New York City to do something about segregated schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Matilda and Eliza Seki, left, and their friends Noa and Benji Weiss, right, collected signatures at a district 15 meeting to discuss middle school integration efforts.

While they learned about the history of segregation, a group of Brooklyn 11-year-olds took a good look around their classrooms and realized their schools weren’t so different from the photos in their textbooks.

So Matilda and Eliza Seki paired up with their friends Noa and Benji Weiss — two sets of twins — and decided to do something about it. They launched a petition on calling on the city to integrate its schools.

“We learned about separate and equal in the civil rights movement, and that it was not equal,” Eliza said, referring to the “separate but equal” legal doctrine once used to justify segregation. “And since there are schools with people of only one race, and it’s all separated, it cannot be equal.”

Matilda and Eliza are in the sixth grade at M.S. 839, and Noa and Benji are fifth-graders at P.S. 10. They already have a bit of experience in activism, having joined the Women’s March in D.C., and helping to lead environmental clubs at their school. They hold sophisticated views for kids their age, and are aware of the hurdles ingrained in addressing school segregation.

Describing how housing patterns can tie into school quality, Benji began his thoughts by saying: “Let’s say you’re from a different culture or race and you don’t have as much money as other people do — because we still live in a racist country — and you’re in an area where the housing is cheaper but you don’t have as good schools.”

Across New York City, adults have debated how to spur integration in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated. According to one recent analysis, the city’s most selective high schools enroll 84 percent white and Asian students, even though those groups make up only 30 percent of the city’s student enrollment.

But student-organized groups have also been at the forefront of a grassroots movement for more diverse schools. The work of budding advocates Matilda, Eliza, Noa and Benji caught the attention of some those groups, and they’ve now joined the ranks of Teens Take Charge and IntegrateNYC as some of the youngest members. The changes they’d like to see go beyond admissions policies, but also include a push for additional resources for underserved schools, hiring more teachers of color and curricula that reflects all students and cultures.

“We decided it was an important issue and we wanted to help fix it,” Noa said.

Matilda added: “Our schools should look like our city.”

Their schools are in District 15, where 81 percent of white students are concentrated in just three of the district’s most selective middle schools, according to an analysis by parents. The city has launched a series of public workshops to craft a new admissions model to integrate middle schools there, but these kids already have their own ideas for how to do that.

Benji, who is heading to middle school next year, said it would be “pretty good” if schools stopped picking students based on criteria such as class grades and attendance. Such “screening” contributes to segregation because of a number of factors — from which elementary schools students attend, to their parents’ ability to navigate the complicated admissions process.  

“It’s… important to learn about different peoples’ backgrounds, and religions, and cultures,” he said. “And also to make sure that all kids, no matter their race, religion or where they live can get the same, good education.”