When Good Breakfast Programs Go Bad
When the superintendent asked if I would be interested in piloting the new breakfast program at my elementary school 15 years ago, I was thrilled. At that time I was principal of the largest and poorest elementary school in the area, and most of my students qualified for free or reduced lunch. So being able to provide a good nutritious breakfast for the kids sounded to me like a great idea. And it was.
There were, of course, a few bugs to work out before the program ran smoothly. We served cold cereal most of the time with an occasional breakfast bar as a special treat. I needed extra people in the cafeteria to help little kids open milk and cereal boxes. We didn’t have the technology to allow kids to digitally pay for meals by punching in their code, so we had to devise a way that no one would know who qualified for free or reduced breakfast. Federal guidelines required us to serve every child a half-pint of milk with their cereal, and custodians hauled away oceans of milk that was spilled or thrown away. Kids dawdled over half-eaten bowls of cereal rather than move along to the classroom. Still, it was truly wonderful to see little kids getting something to eat so they weren’t hungry all morning and could focus on learning. I felt good about the whole endeavor and proud that we were chosen to pilot it. The following year all of the other schools in the district came on board.
That was then. This is now.
Today some twelve million kids eat breakfast at school, and
it’s not just cereal and milk. Now it’s
sausage, toast, cinnamon buns and French toast sticks. Some kids eat breakfast at home and have a second one at school. Now, some claim that federally funded breakfasts are a leading contributor to childhood obesity. According to USA Today, a University of Michigan study in 2010 found that students who regularly ate school breakfasts were 29% more likely to be overweight. The study also found that eating school lunches was the single strongest indicator of childhood obesity. Another good idea gone bad.
The USA article was written by libertarian author James Bovard, author of Attention Deficit Democracy. Bovard, who frequently criticizes what he sees as waste or corruption in government, cites other studies that indicate that breakfast at school doesn’t change kids’ eating habits, doesn’t encourage kids who regularly skip breakfast to eat breakfast, and doesn’t improve kids’ academic performance. Bovard’s takeaway is that any attempt to expand the school breakfast program is misguided, and that schools, in fact, should stop giving away free food.
Well, if kids are eating French toast and cinnamon buns every morning at school (or at home for that matter), then he’s probably right. Nobody needs two breakfasts. But the original idea of offering breakfast at school – a simple, healthy breakfast – has been perverted. What was once a way to give kids a good start to the day has become a cholesterol festival each morning.
Schools are partly to blame by offering food cafeteria managers thought kids would eat – the kind of food kids eat at home or at the fast food restaurants preferred by their families. Here’s my suggestion: Instead of completely abandoning the idea of breakfast, offer only healthy choices. If kids want to eat, they will; if they don’t, fine. Same with lunches. We know kids are protesting the new federal guidelines for lunch – some high schoolers even claim they’re “starving” on the 850 calories allotted to lunch. For most, “starving” is a concept they really don’t get.
In this era of politicizing everything, even school breakfast and lunch become topics for one side or the other. But cafeteria managers and administrators need to remember the original purpose of breakfast and lunch at school was to enhance kids’ health and academic performance, not to fatten kids up like the witch in Hansel and Gretel. Breakfast at school remains a good idea if it’s done right.