May 20 • 11:02 AM

Don't forget about breakfast

Schools countywide provide free, reduced, or affordable programs

February 20, 2008
LAPEER COUNTY — It is universally accepted that breakfast is the most important meal of the day—particularly for children.

To ensure that children are given the chance to eat a wholesome, nutritious meal at the beginning of the day, the federal government instituted the School Breakfast Program in 1966.

Youngsters at Weston Elementary School in Imlay City enjoy a nutritious meal in the school’s cafeteria at the beginning of the school year.

The SBP was begun as a pilot program to help schools provide breakfasts for "nutritionally needy" children, most often dedicated to schools in economically depressed areas.

As a result, the original program was limited to children living in specific socio-economic conditions, and whose parents or caregivers were determined to meet low-income status.

By the time the SBP received permanent authorization in 1975, breakfasts became available to schools as a means of ensuring that all children had the option of eating breakfast at school; either at a reasonable cost, for a reduced rate, or free based on the financial need of the child's family.

Under the terms of the SBP, participating schools receive cash subsidies from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture for each meal served. In return, schools must serve breakfasts that meet federal requirements and make them available at no cost or at the reduced rate for eligible children.

In the Fiscal Year 2007, the annual cost of the SBP had risen to more than $2 billion, a far cry from the $10.8 million it took to run the program in 1970.

Regardless of the cost, the federal government and schools nationwide continue to view the School Breakfast Program as an institutional necessity.

In the State of Michigan, the State Board of Education celebrates National School Breakfast Week on March 3-7. As part of this year's theme, Fuel Your Imagination, the SBOE points out that research shows dramatic evidence that students who eat breakfast are more alert, have improved memory and problem-solving skills and perform better on standardized tests.

In compliance with the SBOE, school districts in Lapeer County join others statewide in providing their own school breakfast programs. Each is administered by an individual food service director, with the breakfasts prepared and served by paid staff and volunteers.

Lapeer Schools' Food Services Director Scott Smith shares the mantra of countless other advocates of the Schools Breakfast Program; that eating a nutritional meal early in the day is vital to the function and development of young people.

"I believe that breakfast is the most important meal of the day for kids," says Smith. "We serve about 1,000 breakfasts a day districtwide. We've tried to improve our menu to include more nutritional things that kids will eat. We do a nutritional analysis on all of our food items."

The cost of a paid breakfast is $1.25 at Lapeer East and Lapeer West high schools, and $1 at the district's elementary schools. Students who qualify for the reduced rate pay only 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch. The prices are consistent with schools throughout Lapeer County.

Smith notes that 31 percent of his district's students qualify for either free or reduced-rate breakfasts. Moreover, the district takes measures to assure that students receiving free or reduced breakfasts are spared of embarrassment or the feeling of being singled-out.

"That's very important to us," says Smith. "We have a POS (Point of Sale) system that makes all sales private. Only the cashier knows the student's status. We want to eliminate any possible embarrassment to students."

Some of the items available to students at the beginning of each school day in Lapeer County include: milk, juices, fruits, cold cereals and regular hot menu items.

While nutritional food is always available to them, getting children to eat it can be a challenge, says Smith.

"The key is to get them to eat, period," he says. "This is a program that is either free or available to them at a reasonable cost, yet only some kids use it."

The reason that many parents and children don't take advantage of the School Breakfast Program may be systemic. Experts say obesity is on the rise among young people, contending that fast food has become a substitute to wholesome food for many children. Add high sugar and caffeine content to their diets, and the result is a generation that is, at least figuratively, "bouncing off the walls." At a minimum, say experts, diets high in sugar and caffeine make it difficult for children to focus on subject matter and concentrate in their classrooms.

Connie Walker, Food Services Director at Almont Schools, says she has witnessed the influence that fast food has had on today's generation of youngsters.

"I used to see the kids come into the lunchroom with potato chips, Gator Aid and Gummy Bears," she says, "but that is changing.

"I think a lot of parents get too busy or forget that breakfast is available to their kids," says Walker. "Even some students are surprised. We need to get the message out—to educate everyone."

As an incentive for participation, Walker offers giveaways such as "lucky trays." There is also discussion about providing breakfast for students in their classrooms, possibly as early as next year.

"There would be a lot of coordination involved in such a program," says Walker, "but we think it would make the kids feel more comfortable. If they see their friends eating, they're more likely to eat, too."

At Schickler Elementary in Lapeer, Scott Smith says the district has taken the free breakfast concept a step farther.

Smith says that because a specific percentage of the students at Schickler qualify for either reduced or free meals, a "Universal Breakfast" program has been implemented.

"It means that all students and staff are eligible for free breakfast and lunches," says Smith.

According to the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service, children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the Federal poverty level are eligible for free meals.

Those with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level qualify for reduced-price meals.

For the period from July 1, 2007 through June 30, 2008, 130 percent of the poverty level is $26,845 for a family of four; while 185 percent is $38,203.

For more information about school breakfast and lunch programs in Lapeer County, contact your local food services director.

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