Chicago Public Schools are putting the government’s money where its mouth is.
A new federally funded
initiative in the district mandates that by June all elementary schools must begin serving a free breakfast at the start of the school day. A variation of this program has existed in the Windy City since 2009, but then the meal was served in the cafeteria before school. The new “Breakfast in the Classroom” program highlights the importance of good nutrition
in educational outcomes, but it has also garnered criticism from parents and teachers who say it cuts into an already short school day
Chicago made the change after determining that only 23 percent of kids ate free breakfast when it was served before school, while 70 percent of kids ate it when it was served at the start of the day in the classroom. A similar study
conducted by the USDA from 2000 to 2003 found a significant increase in the number of kids who ate free breakfast when it was moved from the cafeteria to the classroom.
“We have to feed our bodies and we have to feed our brains,” said Anastasia McGee, director of the Chicago Partnership for Health Promotion at the University of Chicago. “And if our brains are hungry, they don’t work.”
Breakfast leads to better behavior in classrooms, better concentration, and better attendance, according to Eric Rimm, an associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health.
“A key to having a healthier next generation is to make some systematic changes,” Rimm said. “To me it’s fantastic that an entire city is deciding to serve kids.”
Of the major urban school districts in the country, only Newark, Detroit, Houston and Washington, D.C. also have a mandated universal free breakfast program, according to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC.)
Since its inception in 1966, the school breakfast program has targeted schools serving low-income neighborhoods. In Chicago’s public elementary schools, 83 percent of students are eligible for a free lunch
. But of those students, only 38 percent participated in the free breakfast program last year, according to FRAC
“The kids are always saying, ‘What’s for breakfast?’” said Lois Ashford, a sixth grade teacher at O’Keeffe. Some of her students don’t get much to eat at home.
“One child, I can look at her and tell she’s not eating because usually on Monday she’s trying to get two breakfasts,” Ashford said.
But, while she sees the benefits of the breakfast program firsthand, she also has an issue with its timing. The 10 to 15 minutes for breakfast in the morning is time she used to have to prepare for the day.
A similar chorus of parental concern
rang out in January. Two days before the school board voted to implement Breakfast in the Classroom, a petition was signed by parents who didn’t want any more time lopped off the school day – one of the shortest in the country. The letter was reportedly signed by more than a thousand parents.
“I’m supportive of the goals of the program, just not the means of implementing them,” said Terri Tomcisin, the mother of a third grader in the system. “We had a program in place, it worked, it didn’t take up instructional time, and to force this program -- to shorten an already short school day -- is not very student-oriented.”
“There were different kinks that needed to be worked out,” he said. Parents were also concerned that their kids would start eating twice in the morning – once at home and again at school. And, given the bad name that school lunch food has earned over the years, there were concerns about the quality of the meals.
Those concerns were not unfounded. Until this school year, lax nutritional standards meant kids could be served breakfasts of pop tarts and “Super Donuts
” – not crime-fighting breakfast pastries, but donuts that have been juiced up with nutrients.
Chicago schools are now offering more fresh fruits and vegetables, restricting sugar and sodium, and requiring 25 percent of breakfast breads to be whole grains.
“Something more would be more ideal, but they went from zero to 25 percent,” said Rochelle Davis, director of the Healthy Schools Campaign.
The breakfast menu in May still included dishes like “Brown Sugar Cinnamon French Toast,” but “Whole Grain Maple Oatmeal” was also offered. Not necessarily optimal breakfast standards, but certainly steps in the right direction.
After two or three months of the program at Sheridan, O’Connell says the concerns about lost instruction time, double breakfasts, and poor nutrition faded away. Now, two years later, he and his teachers eat the breakfast alongside their students.