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Breakfast at school
Income restrictions eliminated as DCPS offers free food to all students
(Published October 3, 2005)

Staff Writer

Beginning today, all students enrolled in D.C. public schools can get a free breakfast if they show up for school 30 minutes early.

That's the word from school system officials, who say the "universal breakfast" program is being launched with the hope of replicating results of numerous studies that show academic achievement improves, tardiness and truancy rates drop, and student behavioral problems decline at schools that feed their students to start the day.

"Our breakfast participation is low right now and we're trying to figure out why," said Mark Truax, director of food services for D.C. Public Schools.

Truax said only about 13,800 of the school system's more than 60,000 students eat the federally subsidized school breakfasts currently offered – participation that he calls "way too low" compared with other public school districts across the country that offer the morning meal.

Congress established the school breakfast program with a pilot project in 1966 that provided free or reduced-price meals to children from low-income families. Some school systems began offering a free breakfast to all of their students as long as 10 years ago, according to the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center, a D.C.-based organization that works to eradicate hunger in the United States.

In the District of Columbia, students who qualify for reduced-price meals have been charged only 20 cents on a daily basis to eat breakfast at school. The daily cost of breakfast for students who do not qualify for a discount, based on family income, has been 70 cents at elementary schools and $1 at secondary schools.

Still, low cost has not provided the incentive necessary for most D.C. schoolchildren – especially at the high school level – to eat breakfast at school, so Truax said he began investigating why.

"In talking with high school students, most of them didn't participate and I asked them ‘Why?' and they said ‘Only poor kids eat breakfast,'" Truax said.

"Out of the mouths of babes – that perception is there. We have to get rid of that perception," he said.

Breakfast will be served to students in their respective school's cafeteria, beginning half an hour before classes are scheduled to start. In secondary schools, meals will be prepared on site, Truax said, while elementary school meals will be provided by a contractor, Preferred Meal Systems, which already serves the schools.

Truax said the schools will be prepared for an immediate 25 percent increase in the number of daily breakfasts served when they become free and that his division can "get food to them quickly" if some schools experience a larger increase in participants.

"We're guestimating – we're really not sure how it's going to affect participation," he said. "We would like it to be 100 percent [participation], but that's obviously not going to happen."

Officials expect much of the added cost associated with offering free breakfast to all students will be reimbursable through federal nutrition programs.

In addition to making the meals free, Truax said breakfast menus will be changing to offer more choices to students. Previously, only one choice was available to elementary school students, who will now have two every day. Truax said planned changes include the introduction of more whole grains, fruits and vegetables to student meals in coming months.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator