Connecticut ranks among the worst in the nation when it comes to providing school breakfasts to needy students, a distinction state lawmakers are hoping to change.
A bill pending in the legislature would require nearly two dozen elementary and middle schools to begin offering breakfast. And hundreds of other schools that already serve breakfast voluntarily would have their breakfast programs become mandatory if at least 40 percent of their students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, an indicator of poverty.
The bill would lower the threshold for requiring elementary and middle schools to provide breakfast. Schools now have to offer breakfast only if at least 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. The bill would reduce that proportion to 40 percent, a benchmark the federal government uses to label a school as "severe need."
The bill seeks to solve two separate but related problems: Not all schools with low-income students serve breakfast; and at those that do, not a lot of students eat them. Connecticut comes up short on both measures compared to other states.
More than 140,000 students in Connecticut qualify for free or reduced-price meals, meaning their families fall below 185 percent of the poverty line, or $31,765 for a family of three. Those students also qualify for free or reduced-price breakfasts, subsidized by federal and state money.
But only about a third eat them — one of the lowest rates in the nation.
Among the Connecticut schools that participate in the federally funded school lunch program, just over half offer breakfast — the lowest rate in the country, according to the Food Research and Action Center, a national policy organization.
Many states have similar standards for requiring schools to serve breakfast, but most that do have lower thresholds than Connecticut. In Massachusetts, schools must serve breakfast if at least 50 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price meals; New Jersey sets the bar at 20 percent. In Rhode Island and Vermont, all public schools are required to provide breakfast.
Supporters of the bill say it will bring school districts millions of federal dollars and could improve student performance.
"Children in many cases are not getting what they need," state Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, said during a public hearing on the bill. "It is our obligation to do what we can to make sure that children are ready to learn on a daily basis."
But opponents call the bill an unfunded mandate.
"Some schools in my district don't have any demand for breakfast," said state Sen. Dan Debicella, R-Shelton. "So why are we going to mandate this on our municipalities when it's much better left up to the local school boards?"
The bill would also require school districts to sponsor summer food programs, beginning in 2009, if 50 percent or more of the students in least one school receive free or reduced-price lunches, though school boards could vote to be exempt from that rule.
It also calls for greater outreach to encourage breakfast programs and grants for schools to offer breakfast to all students in their classrooms.
Many of Connecticut's severe-need schools already offer breakfast, but the bill would mean new breakfast programs for nearly two dozen schools in towns including Bristol, Enfield, Groton, Meriden, Plymouth, and Torrington.
In schools that don't serve breakfast, officials cite a number of barriers: bus schedules that don't allow enough time to eat before class, concerns about staffing the cafeteria before school and cleaning up garbage, and worries that federal and state funds won't fully pay for the program.
Requiring breakfast service for severe need districts would push school officials to overcome those barriers and ensure that students have access to food, said Marci Nogueira, general manager of food and nutrition services for East Hartford's schools.
"We don't know if they've eaten or had time to eat," she said. "Nine times out of 10, statistics wise, they haven't had time or made the time or been given the meal from home."
In Bristol, the bill would mean adding breakfast at Memorial Boulevard Middle School, one of two schools in the district that do not serve breakfast.
Bristol elementary schools began offering breakfasts in 2000; officials had expressed concern that children were arriving at school hungry and their performance suffered as a result. The program later expanded to high schools, but not the middle schools, in part because buses drop students off with little time to eat before classes start.
One of the middle schools, Chippens Hill, now gets around that by offering "Grab and Go" meals, boxes of cereal, Pop Tarts and juice that students can eat in class. Principal Catherine Carbone introduced the program to Chippens Hill when she began the job; her previous school in East Hartford had a similar program.
"It takes care of itself," she said, minutes before breakfast got under way. Around 7:55 a.m., students breezed through the cafeteria line, grabbing the brightly colored boxes and cartons of milk before heading to class. By 8:03, the cafeteria was clear.
The ideal system, said Greg Boulanger, Bristol's director of food services, is to serve breakfast in classrooms to every student, something the proposed bill would offer grants to fund. New Britain, Stratford and Bridgeport tried that model under a pilot program, and found participation jumped significantly.
But doing so requires cooperation between principals, teachers, and custodians to handle the meals and the garbage it generates in each classroom, rather than a centralized cafeteria. It might mean changes to union contracts.
"It's not as easy as it sounds," said Linda Franzese, the food service director for Waterbury schools, where in-classroom breakfast is served at just one school, an alternative school where all the students walk. "Or else I'm sure we'd try it in every school."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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