As students at Jane Addams Elementary School in Palatine settle in at the beginning of each day, pencils and notebooks won’t be the only items on their desks.
For a 15-minute period before the start bell rings at 7:55 a.m., any of the 800 or so students can head to their classroom and eat a breakfast made up of skim milk, reduced-sugar cereal, juice and a whole-grain snack.
Breakfast in schools is nothing new. In the last 10 months alone, Palatine Township Elementary School District 15 has served more than 166,000 meals through the federal School Breakfast Program, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.
But these particular meals won’t cost students a dime, regardless of financial need.
“Kids don’t learn on empty bellies,” District 15 School Nutrition Services Director Bobbie Desprat said. “We want to start the day off on a positive foot.”
Universal free breakfast, called Breakfast in the Classroom, is being tested in a growing number of schools in pilot programs using federal money. In Elgin Area School District U-46, for example, the Breakfast in the Classroom program was expanded this fall to 10 schools and 6,300 students.
District 15 officials saw Jane Addams as the natural choice for the pilot program.
For one, students there are accustomed to eating in their classrooms. The K-6 school has received fresh fruit and vegetable program grants in the past and students get fresh produce for a midmorning snack twice a week.
They’ve shown they can eat in their classrooms without disruption and without making a mess, the latter being a concern of the district’s facilities and maintenance department. Also, Jane Addams already served breakfast to about 130 students each day in the cafeteria.
The district originally targeted Jane Addams for nutrition initiatives because of its large population of students qualifying for free and reduced price lunch. According to the 2011 state report cards, 59 percent of Jane Addams students were low-income compared to a districtwide average of 31.9 percent, the highest in District 15.
Children who qualify for free breakfast under the traditional program are from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level, or $29,055 for a family of four during the 2011-12 school year. For reduced price, the requirement was 185 percent, or $41,348 for a family of four.
The federal government reimburses the district for every breakfast it serves. In 2011-12, the reimbursement amount was 27 cents for students who pay, $1.21 for students who qualify for a reduced price and $1.51 for students who eat for free.
The national School Breakfast Program doubled in cost in a decade. In fiscal year 2010, it cost $2.9 billion compared to $1.4 billion in 2000.
District 15 Superintendent Scott Thompson said the pilot breakfast program isn’t costing taxpayers anything on a local level. Desprat said the district food programs are “revenue neutral.”
“Our programs need to be self-supporting so that they’re not taking any money from the education fund,” she said.
District officials said a big advantage of offering breakfast to all students in the classroom is that it eliminates any stigma associated with subsidized meals. Though the school protected their identity, kids could have felt singled out.
Desprat said the issue of which students need a meal isn’t necessarily an economic one. She pointed to working parents or families simply running late as reasons that kids may show up to school with an empty stomach.
Hungry kids, research shows, don’t learn as much.
Dr. Laura Jana, an author and spokeswoman for the Elk Grove Village-based American Pediatric Association, said a lack of food can affect concentration, memory and the ability to process information.
“A nutritious breakfast plays into an overall sense of feeling good,” Jana said. “There’s compelling evidence that kids who eat breakfast learn better.”
District 15 officials hope the program also will cut down on trips to the nurse’s office, lead to fewer discipline problems, decrease tardiness and absenteeism, and even raise grades.
Robin Levy of the Midwest Dairy Council, which provided a $7,000 grant for equipment such as shelves and rolling racks, said several schools in Chicago that have implemented free breakfast programs have reported improved academic performance.
Officials don’t think every student will take advantage of the free breakfast. Based on trends for similar programs, they expect to serve about 400 meals daily for participation of 50 percent.
Jane Addams bilingual teacher Annette Mongoven, who helps run the school garden and has led nutrition curriculum, said she’s thrilled about the pilot program.
“If kids’ basic needs aren’t being met, they don’t stand a chance,” she said. “There’s not a lot of learning that will go on.”Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.