Food for thought: P-O launches districtwide free breakfast program with eye on students’ health, learning

Workers Diane Josefik, left, and Wendy Grannis joke with students as they fill breakfast orders at Philipsburg-Osceola Elementary School. Soon, students in the district won’t have to pay for breakfast. The district, citing improved learning results, is offering a free breakfast to all students.
Workers Diane Josefik, left, and Wendy Grannis joke with students as they fill breakfast orders at Philipsburg-Osceola Elementary School. Soon, students in the district won’t have to pay for breakfast. The district, citing improved learning results, is offering a free breakfast to all students. CDT photo

Please pass the milk. And the Cocoa Puffs. Hey, are you going to eat that muffin?

Students at one local school district will be able to eat breakfast together every day for the rest of the school year. Philipsburg-Osceola passed a universal breakfast program last week.

Director of Food Services Laura Frye will begin March 25 serving kindergartners through high school seniors every morning, for free. The pilot program will continue through June, and Frye hopes to see it prove successful enough to continue next year.

P-O started an aggressive push for school breakfasts last year, offering grab-and-go carts in senior high hallways in addition to an open cafeteria and the more traditional before-school meal offered in the elementary buildings.

But schools are in the business of teaching kids. What does breakfast have to do with that?

A lot, Frye said.

She cited research in making her pitch to the school board that kids do 17.5 percent better on math tests if they eat breakfast. They also miss 1.5 fewer school days each year and are 20 percent more likely to graduate from high school, she said.

Bellefonte Food Services Director Barbara Eckley agreed.

“Eating breakfast helps children learn,” Eckley said. “Studies have shown that students who eat breakfast perform better on standardized tests since they are more attentive and focused. Decreased absenteeism and less frequent visits to the nurse are examples of this.”

‘Take away that stigma’

Finding a way to make breakfast match the way kids eat increased the number of students starting the day with good nutrition, but it also fattened up the food service department’s bottom line, school officials said. While the cafeteria has often run deeply in the red, increases in breakfast participation actually made Frye’s department almost break even last year.

This year, she wants to eliminate all prices for breakfast but still hopes to see her books balance. The number of kids participating, she said, should see enough of an increase in state and federal funding for those who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches to balance out the cost across the board.

That math might not seem to work, but program advocates say it does.

“That’s the argument that we make,” said Kumar Chandran, senior manager at Share Our Strength, a Washington, D.C.-based organization whose mission is fighting childhood hunger through its No Kid Hungry campaign.

In a March 5 press release, Share Our Strength touted school breakfast programs as positively affecting children’s nutritional habits, physical fitness and classroom performance.

“Because of the economies of scale, you have the same cost for all the kids, but you’re bringing in more reimbursements and making that program more financially stable,” Chandran said. “You also have the added benefit that there are administrative cost savings. You don’t have all that paperwork of proving what each kid is eligible for.”

In Pennsylvania’s 5th Congressional District, Share Our Strength says that 31,622 of 85,388 students enrolled in 229 public schools qualify for free breakfasts.

The program is a good fit for P-O because about half of the district’s students receive free or reduced-price lunches because of low income.

The district has offered free lunches for all students during standardized testing before. Frye said she sees participation among fifth- and sixth-graders who pay full price rise from 31 percent to 89 percent on those days. Those who qualify for free lunch jump from 64 percent participating to the same 89 percent figure.

That’s an important aspect advocates point to, removing the shame of the meal being something for poor kids.

“It does take away that stigma,” said Chandran. “That’s a big benefit with all kids eating for free. Given the results that we’ve seen, that’s been an assumption for us going in, but it is really being proven to us going out.”

‘Regardless of income’

In Pennsylvania, 85 percent of schools offer some kind of breakfast program.

In Centre County, every school district offers something.

At Bellefonte, the full price is $1 across the board for elementary and secondary student breakfasts.

At Bald Eagle Area, it is $1.10 for all students.

Penns Valley has a 90-cent elementary breakfast and $1 secondary.

State College costs the most, at $1.25 for elementary and $1.75 for secondary.

At all school districts, reduced-price breakfasts cost 30 cents. Before implementing the universal program, P-O had the lowest price, 85 cents for both elementary and secondary breakfasts.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, school breakfasts are reimbursed at a rate of $1.58 for students receiving free meals, $1.28 for those who get a reduced price, and 28 cents for those who pay full price.

For schools such as P-O that have a high number of free and reduced-price recipients, there can be an additional 30 cent payment per meal. It is the across-the-board figures that would allow P-O to offer the program to every student.

But Pennsylvania still lags behind other states in terms of participation in the programs. According to Julie Zaebst, policy manager of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, the commonwealth is 39th in the nation for the number of low-income children who eat breakfast at school versus the same kids who might take advantage of lunch programs.

That’s the reason for a current push by the state to increase morning nutrition. The Pennsylvania School Breakfast Challenge is running through the end of the month, with 1,100 schools competing to see which can have the most growth in breakfast numbers. The governor is advocating this breakfast of champions.

“Families living on very tight budgets sometimes cannot afford to provide a good breakfast at home every day,” Gov. Tom Corbett said in a letter to superintendents and principals about the challenge in November.

“Regardless of income, many families live very busy lives that can make it difficult to sit down long enough in the morning to eat a nutritious breakfast,” Corbett said. “School breakfast helps address all of these issues.”