On the table

Even as families feel the economic pinch, many eligible students don't take advantage of free or low-cost breakfasts served at schools. Why?

By Ric Kahn
Globe Staff / January 4, 2009
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Anisha Bates tries to shake her two oldest children out of bed at 5 a.m. to make it to school on time for the free breakfast served before classes. But it can be a chore.

They're young girls, 12 and 15. So they steal more snooze time. They dawdle. They primp their hair. They listen to "bachata," slow romantic Spanish music. At least the older one, Shaquia, does. Michaela waits around to go to school with her sister.

If they are running late, Bates, 35, feeds them cereal or knows they have money to grab something at the corner store to boost their half-hour trip, by bus and foot, from the Faneuil public housing development in Brighton to the Edison Middle School, in the same neighborhood.

Shaquia might choose the young person's breakfast of champions: chips and soda. Michaela sometimes goes the healthier route: Gatorade and chips.

Bates has been preaching to them forever that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, because she knows how they act without it. Yet she figures there are days when they miss the morning meal - and suffer for it.

"Doing school work and having gym class, they're going to be cranky and sluggish," says Bates, a quality-assurance technician at a pharmaceutical company.

The Bates sisters are not the only ones who may be skipping school breakfasts that are on the house.

The free breakfast seems to be the poor stepchild of federal nutrition programs. A recent study by Harvard researchers found that while almost 18 million low-income children nationally received free or reduced-price school lunches, only about 8 million of them also participate in the marked-down breakfast program.

Statewide, all public schools must offer free lunch to kids who qualify, but only those with the neediest student bodies - or 48 percent - have to serve free breakfast. Another 22 percent of schools choose to give it. Still, according to the antihunger organization Project Bread, only 34 percent of disadvantaged students in the Commonwealth are taking advantage of bargain school breakfasts.

In the city, according to numbers provided by Project Bread, only about half of its indigent students are eating cut-rate breakfasts in the Boston public schools, though officials say every principal or headmaster presents the option. Boston administrators say they are meeting with students to try to raise the turnout.

Beyond the schools that don't dish out the meal - with some saying they are unable to absorb the leftover costs that may not be picked up by the federal government - there are numerous barriers blocking student participation, nutrition and education advocates say.

Some parents don't know the meal program exists. Some students travel far to school and don't get there in time for the breakfast.

And then there are children who feel looked down on for taking their corn muffins, and the like, for free. Despite evidence showing that obstacles of stigma and scheduling dissolve when breakfast is served after the bell rings - often in homeroom - there are schools that won't surrender precious minutes to anything they don't feel will satisfy educational mandates.

"Nutrition hasn't historically been seen as a major school responsibility, like teaching math," says Ellen Parker, executive director of Project Bread, a group best known for its annual Walk for Hunger but that has been working for years to expand the reach of school-nutrition services.

Yet the pedagogical price of ignoring early-morning hunger pangs is enormous, the Harvard researchers say.

"In terms of producing good outcomes for kids, it's hard to find a better investment than the school breakfast program," says J. Larry Brown, visiting scholar at the Harvard School of Public Health and senior author of the November report, "Impact of School Breakfast on Children's Health and Learning."

The study cites the far-ranging benefits of having students show up for classes with their bellies full: increased attendance, standardized test scores, and grades; decreased classroom disruptions and trips to the school nurse.

"It's as close to a magic bullet as you'll see for educational preparedness," Brown says of the school breakfast program.

At the Higginson Elementary School in Roxbury, 11-year-old Estefany Fernandez knows in her gut the same thing that the Harvard researchers concluded after they analyzed more than 100 scientific articles on the relationship between undernutrition and learning: She'd be lost in class without her school's whole-grain cereal in her stomach.

"I'd sit there for 10 minutes trying to figure out the question," says the Jamaica Plain resident. "My belly would be grumbling while waiting for lunch."

Her fellow fifth-grader, Ijahleel Reid, agrees. "I'd be out of it," says the 10-year-old from Hyde Park.

The Higginson is one of 115 schools statewide in the past five years that have won $1,000 awards from Project Bread for increasing the numbers of students eating free breakfast by shifting the starting time until after classes begin.

Principal Joy Oliver made the switch when she came aboard in 2001. She'd seen firsthand how hard it was for children to be drawn into lesson plans with their heads drooping on their desks. She figured that a 15-minute breakfast served in homeroom could offer a significant jolt to learning.

"You can't be the best student you can be if you're not focused," says Oliver.

To further erase chasms between haves and have-nots, many schools with a majority of less-well-off kids - such as the Higginson - have adopted a policy of furnishing a free breakfast to every student, regardless of home income. For some, there is state funding available to cover costs not met by standard federal reimbursements.

Those who ignore the benefits of school breakfasts - designed to meet federal nutrition standards and help guard against obesity and diabetes - are incurring a heavy hidden tax, the Harvard researchers warn. They say America's annual bill for things like illness and lost productivity due to hunger is $90 billion. Of that, nearly $10 billion is related to educational troubles, according to the study. It was commissioned by the Sodexo Foundation, the charitable arm of Sodexo Inc., which provides food and facilities management to customers ranging from corporations to retirement centers to schools, including the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

Otilia Ortiz is not one of the apathetic. She has a full plate for a 16-year-old: classes, homework, and after-school and weekend activities that include working at a community-action group; fighting substance abuse with other young people; and learning the basics of medicine from health professionals to feed her desire to become a doctor. Some days she doesn't get to sleep until 1 a.m.

Yet every school day Ortiz rises from her bed at the Mary Ellen McCormack housing development in South Boston at 5:30, showers and dresses, and rides two buses so she can get to the free breakfast at Boston Latin Academy in Roxbury before 7.

"When I eat," says the sophomore, "I feel more energized. I actually do my work and stay awake."

For struggling residents who qualify - those with yearly incomes at or below $27,560 for a family of four - putting free breakfast on the menu can mean less bite out of their household budgets. Project Bread estimates that a family with two young children who eat breakfast and lunch at school can save about $1,450 a year.

Anisha Bates says the money her two oldest daughters shell out for junk food before school could be better spent on healthier items. Her three kids are asthmatics, she's a diabetic, and her bills for those medicines alone, she says, can run up to $260 a month.

Which is why she tells her children to hurry up and get to school, and quit complaining about the taste of the breakfast food there.

"Money is tight," says Bates, "and it's free."

Ric Kahn can be reached at

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