Wake County schools will soon join the national trend of trying to improve student performance by ensuring that they are not hungry when they begin their day.
Wake, the state’s largest school system, will offer free breakfast to all students at eight elementary schools in the coming year.
Supporters of what’s known as “universal breakfast” say the programs prevent low-income students from feeling singled out because they eat breakfast at school. The idea is that if those students feel more comfortable because everyone around them is eating breakfast, participation will increase.
Backers say the program also can benefit higher-income students who may face long commutes or hectic schedules that do not leave time for a nutritious breakfast.
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Lynn Harvey, director of child nutrition services at the state Department of Public Instruction, said some research shows that students who eat breakfast have higher test scores and better attendance and graduation rates than their peers who do not.
School systems across the state are finding ways to put that research into practice with universal breakfast or other methods that encourage students to eat at school.
“We’re seeing a strong commitment among school districts to the link between fueling the body and fueling the brain for success,” Harvey said.
Wake schools serve an average of nearly 28,000 breakfasts daily, compared with 17,000 daily in early 2009.
The federal government subsidizes the costs for students who eat school meals, including those who pay full price, through the national school breakfast and lunch programs. Students can apply to qualify for free or reduced price breakfasts and lunches at school based on their family income.
‘Students who need it’
Wake officials expect that the pilot programs will generate enough income from federal subsidies to cover the costs of all of the participating students. The participating schools have high free and reduced-price meal participation rates, to maintain the balance between more reimbursement and the loss of money for paid meals.
“This will allow us to go out and try to get more food for students who need it and also be financially responsible,” said Joe Desormeaux, assistant superintendent for facilities.
Wake has not yet released the names of the participating schools because the final list still needs to be presented to the Board of Education.
Terry Stoops, director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank in Raleigh, said his primary concern for the pilot program is that, in the long-term, it not commit the school system to costs that are more than the federal reimbursement. It also should be assessed to ensure that it is serving low-income families, he said.
“I think it’s important that these programs are able to attract the populations for which they’re designed,” he said.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system rolled out its own free breakfast program in every school last year.
Cindy Hobbs, executive director of Child Nutrition Services for CMS, said there was a 21 percent increase in the number of students eating breakfast, for an average of about 6,000 more meals served each day.
“Our goal was to remove the stigma for breakfast, so the children who do need to eat breakfast don’t shy away,” she said.
The participation increase is not as high as Hobbs would have liked, but she has seen signs of what works well in encouraging students to eat at school.
For example, schools that implemented a “grab-and-go” model saw high increases in participation. Students pick up their meals on the way to the classroom, instead of being tucked away to eat in the cafeteria.
“They’re seeing their peers participate, so they want to as well,” Hobbs said.
Durham schools ran a free breakfast pilot program in 22 schools – at all grade levels and in both low- and high-poverty communities – last year. Jim Keaten, executive director of Child Nutrition Services, said the increase in revenue because of greater participation exceeded the loss of revenue from students who would have paid for meals by $7,000 during the pilot.
Durham will expand the program to all schools beginning this year.
“Our overall goal is to make a difference to education by giving them the needed nutritional boost in the morning,” Keaten said.