Friday, May 10, 2013

Breakfast in the Classroom: HUNGER IS NOT AN OPTION


5-03-2013   ::  The United States has a staggeringly high rate of child poverty. It should come as no surprise, then, that many thousands of children are hungry as they try to focus on lessons. School-based breakfast programs meet some of that food need, but it’s not easy. Consider what’s taking place in Los Angeles Unified School District.

Until recently, breakfasts were offered before school at various locations on school campuses; however, these environments were a poor way to make sure that children received and then ate the food that was available. So, for the past two years, many Los Angeles schools have brought breakfast into classrooms for more than 200,000 students. Moving the food into classrooms at the start of the school day has increased the number of students eating breakfast in a structured environment. Participation in the breakfast program has grown from 29 percent to 89 percent.

By many accounts, the program has been a success (Los Angeles Times). There is anecdotal evidence tying it to higher attendance and lower tardiness rates. Earlier this year, Shadette Loper, a first-grade teacher in South Los Angeles said, “Before, they would complain about headaches or ask, 'Is it time for lunch?’ Now you're seeing everyone has an opportunity to eat before they start the school day." And the program appears to be popular with many parents. Speaking out for the breakfast program that serves her two sons at Hoover Elementary, Janet Torres said, “This program is really important for the kids to eat and open their minds.”

But, a recent survey, performed by United Teachers Los Angeles, revealed some problems with program implementation that hadn’t been anticipated (except, perhaps, by the teachers).

About half of the respondents said they saw more sanitation issues and pests. Some have said that students still ignored food or threw it away just as they did when food was distributed outside. Plus, a majority said it took time out of the instructional day, and that they’d prefer the program to take place in the cafeteria instead of classrooms (Los Angeles Daily News, Los Angeles Times).

No one is calling for students not to be fed. “Classroom lessons are important, but we cannot ignore the social and economic realities that impact children’s learning,” said Cournti Pugh, SEIU Local 99 executive director (Daily News). The union represents cafeteria workers and other classified employees and notes that elimination of the program would mean the loss of 900 jobs. Parents have protested that some structure is necessary for students, otherwise it’s predictable that students will show up late or prefer to spend their time playing instead of eating (KPCC, Los Angeles Daily News, Los Angeles Times).

The solution seems to be to find methods (instruction, among them) and resources to supervise students so they can take advantage of nutritious school meals. That objective is certainly within the charge of what schools and society ought to find important and be able to accomplish.

Superintendent John Deasy has removed this fledgling but popular program from his budget, and has turned the issue over to the school board to vote on its future. The vote is scheduled for May 14, but the board majority seems interested in keeping the program—although with some fixes (KPCC).

There are two very important goals here that should not be competing with each other. We want policies that ensure more and better nutrition. We also want to ensure that students have full instructional programs. As this issue plays out, it highlights the importance of schools as places that are entrusted with a child’s full well-being.

The administration and board should look to other models—“community schools,” for example—to figure out how to bring two good things to children (food and knowledge) instead of neglecting one, the other, or both. By providing more resources, community schools call upon members of the community to collaborate and solve problems of education, nutrition, health care, and more. If the status quo doesn’t allow us to feed and teach children, then it’s up to us to change and learn how.

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