Breakfast programs in North Carolina public schools may be one possible solution to battling student hunger and raising test scores.
At the 2014 N.C. Child Hunger Leaders Conference in Durham on Wednesday, school leaders from across the state heard that only one in three eligible students eats breakfast at school.
Part of the reason is the stigma attached to eating breakfast at school, said Jim Keaten, executive director of Child Nutrition Services in the Durham Public Schools.
In an interview, Keaten said a Universal Free Breakfast program some school districts have – which Durham is now trying out – lets all students, no matter their family’s income, eat breakfast at school for free.
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It’s too soon to see test results in Durham, but participating schools have seen a 7.5 percent increase in the scores of students who eat breakfast at school, he said.
“Some students feel stigmatized that if other kids see them eating breakfast at school, they’ll think they are poor,” Keaten explained. “This program is for all kids.”
“If we can get people to get past that image, then everyone will feel comfortable coming (to the cafeteria).”
In a presentation at the conference, Robert Murray, a physician and Ohio State University professor of pediatrics and nutrition, said one in five children nationally is “food-insecure,” meaning the children don’t get adequate amounts of good food, usually because their families cannot pay for it.
Nutrition directly affects the brain, Murray said. Eating healthy foods improves thinking, memory, test scores and classroom behavior, he said.
Murray described a perfect child’s life as healthy meals, lots of play, daily routines and adult interactions. When that doesn’t happen, it can have a toxic effect, he said.
Lynn Harvey, section chief of child nutrition services for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, said it’s important that students have time to eat. When buses run late, students may not have time to eat or may eat too quickly to properly digest their food, she said.
North Carolina school districts have implemented programs such as Universal Free Breakfast, Grab and Go Breakfast, and Second Chance Breakfast to help. For elementary students in Durham and other school districts, breakfast is brought to the classroom in case buses are late.
‘Breaking the link’
Thirty schools, or about half the schools in the Durham Public Schools district, have the Universal Free Breakfast program, and Keaten plans to ask the school board to expand it to all schools.
School districts with a high percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals can balance expenses with reimbursements to pay for it, according to the Department of Public Instruction.
Durham school board chairwoman Heidi Carter, who attended the conference, said the board will likely vote to expand the program if the numbers work.
“It’s our fundamental challenge: breaking the link between poverty and success in school,” she said.