With so much recent buzz about “lunch shaming,” in which some students are made to feel embarrassed for unpaid cafeteria bills, it’s easy to forget the sustaining role that school meal programs play: They give a lift and a fighting chance to kids from food-insecure households.
But what about the most important meal of the day? Offering flexible breakfast options in the classroom is a popular way to raise the school nutrition bar. After at least three years debating whether to bring the national “Breakfast after the Bell” program to Washington, there’s some hope for a breakthrough in the long and winding 2017 Legislature.
School breakfast might seem like small potatoes compared to the multi-billion dollar K-12 funding riddle that legislators are under court order to solve this year. But with too many students starting their days with empty bellies, it makes sense to try this breakfast experiment focused on the state’s highest-need schools.
School meals, and the stigma attached to kids who can’t afford them, made for hot conversation this spring, thanks to a good Samaritan named Jeff Lew. He raised money to pay off school lunch debt first in Seattle, then Tacoma. As of Monday, his GoFundMe effort for Tacoma had raised nearly $22,000, more than covering the $20,437 accrued lunch debt the district reported in mid-May.
That some children are singled out with a bare-bones emergency meal, and that some would rather go hungry than face lunch shaming, didn’t go down easy for Lew. “It is an awful thing and it should not be happening,” he said. “Children need to eat regardless if they have money or not.”
To be clear, children aren’t being denied food in our public schools. More than 476,000 Washington students qualify for free and reduced lunches, including nearly 18,000 enrolled in the Tacoma School District program.
But breakfast could use more innovative thinking. A modest serving of Breakfast after the Bell could be just what the doctor ordered.
House Bill 1508 has bounced around the Capitol this year and has returned to the Senate in amended form. It would require breakfast be available after the start of the school day in high-need schools where less than 70 percent of free-or-reduced-lunch-eligible children participate in meal programs. Other schools could join in, if they wish.
The state would provide start-up grants for breakfast alternatives, ranging from grab-and-go protein bars to more complete meals wheeled into classrooms on refrigerated carts. That flexibility is good. So are the proposed incentives for schools that partner with local farmers and community gardeners; better for kids to eat fresh produce than Eggo waffles.
Multiple studies show school breakfast programs improve cognition, alertness and test scores; decrease absences and tardiness; and might have a salutary effect on childhood obesity prevention.
But why serve breakfast in the classroom? Might it not distract children, make messes and steal from precious instructional time? Isn’t it sufficient that many districts already provide a cafeteria breakfast before school, and that Tacoma, among others, doesn’t charge low-income kids a breakfast co-pay?
Breakfast after the Bell boosters contend some kids from unstable homes can’t make it to campus early enough. Even so, the questions are pertinent, and HB1508 was amended to include a review in seven years to ensure the program is living up to its promise.
We support this compromise legislation to provide a nutritious morning refueling for disadvantaged children. If it finally makes it out of Olympia this year, it will be like a toy surprise at the bottom of the cereal box.
Now let’s pray the term “breakfast shaming” never enters the public vernacular.