Pittsburgh Post Gazette
Children rely on their schools for a lot of services throughout the day.
One of the most essential comes at the very beginning of the school day: breakfast.
However, not all students who qualify for free or reduced-price breakfasts take advantage of the opportunity. But the number of those who do in Allegheny County and in Pennsylvania overall is increasing.
“It’s really important to have school breakfast because we’re seeing that a lot of children — especially low income — are coming to school hungry,” said Laura Stephany, the health policy coordinator for the child advocacy group Allies for Children. “We know that it makes a huge impact as far as ability to learn, basic health, basic growth and development.”
A report set to be published Monday by Allies for Children and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank says 61% of students who receive free and reduced-price lunch in Allegheny County this school year also eat breakfast, compared with 55% in the 2014-15 school year. In Pennsylvania, 55% of students who receive free and reduced-price lunch also eat breakfast compared with 48% in 2014-15.
This is the fifth year that Allies for Children has published the report, titled “Breakfast Basics: A Comprehensive Look at School Breakfast Participation in Allegheny County.” The report notes that Allegheny County has exceeded the goal —set in 2016 by Gov. Tom Wolf — one year early of 60% school breakfast participation by those who qualify for free and reduced-price meals.
The report notes that in Allegheny County in 2014 only four school districts served school breakfast to at least half of their students compared with nine districts now meeting that goal.
The Food Research & Action Center, a national nonprofit organization that works to eradicate poverty-related hunger and undernutrition, said Pennsylvania improved from 39th to 35th nationwide in low-income student participation in school lunch and school breakfast from 2017-18 to 2018-19.
The report — done to follow school breakfast trends in the county as well as encourage the type of investment by the state, school districts and other entities — has identified several reasons that may have contributed to the increase in students taking advantage of eligible and reduced-price breakfasts.
One factor, according to the report, was the $1.5 million in mini-grants to schools throughout Pennsylvania — including a total of $128,000 to 33 schools in Allegheny County — awarded over the past two years by the state Department of Education. The mini-grants are used to encourage schools to implement and grow alternative breakfast programs, such as breakfast in the classroom or “Grab and Go” carts that students can take food from as soon as they arrive in the morning.
“With the help of a statewide mini-grant in the 2018-19 school year, we launched a ‘Grab and Go’ breakfast model at our Junior/Senior High School,” Siobhan Nicklow, transportation and food services director for the Woodland Hills School District, said in the report. “Students easily grab breakfast just after they enter the school while walking to their lockers and homeroom classes. … In October 2018, for every 100 students eating a free lunch, we served 52 school breakfasts. That number increased to 60 breakfasts per 100 students by October of 2019. The program not only increased participation, it helped get students excited about school breakfast and talking about items they’d like to see on the menu more often.”
In addition to the alternative models, schools and districts that have 40% of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals can receive the Community Eligibility Provision of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, meaning that all students at the school or district are provided free meals.
The report said the alternative models as well as schools that qualify for CEP help to take away some of the stigma from those who receive school breakfast because the meals become part of the daily routine.
“Breakfast is just something that you just grab on your way in the front door and you eat while you’re in the hallway or in your homeroom, and you see all students, so no students are singled-out,” said Mara Kelosky, research and operation manager for Allies for Children. “All students are starting their day with breakfast, and it’s not something that you have to be ashamed of. No one has to know if you receive free and reduced [meals].”
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