The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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February 19, 2014

Schools scramble to get kids to bite on breakfast

HARRISBURG — School cafeterias try all kinds of gimmicks to entice students to eat breakfast.

Children in Sharon might pass on cold cereal but gobble up sausage on a stick wrapped in pancake batter, said Alice Connolley, food service director for the city’s schools.

Students in Wattsburg like breakfast pizza – a pizza crust topped with tomato sauce, sausage and cheese – because they can eat it with their hands, said Janet Mullaney, nutrition director for the city’s schools.

Mullaney’s even heard of ham-and-egg pizza, she said, though she’s never dared try it herself or serve it.

Despite such creative efforts, data show that only a fraction of students eat breakfast at school – a situation that advocates for the hungry say is especially concerning given recent cuts to food stamp programs.

Fewer benefits mean less food in the cupboards at home, said Ronna Bolante, spokeswoman for the Coalition Against Hunger, based in Philadelphia.

She said the issue looms large now with dual cuts to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – one last November due to an expiration in federal stimulus funding, and another included as part of the recently passed federal Farm Bill.

“With so many families affected by recent cuts to SNAP and their budgets stretched thin, school meals are becoming increasingly important in ensuring kids are getting the nutrition they need,” Bolante said.

Children from low-income families qualify for free or reduced price meals at lunch and breakfast. But in Pennsylvania, only 44 percent of those students actually take advantage of breakfast, according to the Food Research and Action Center. Pennsylvania ranks 39th among states for low-income students who eat breakfast at school.

Last fall, Gov. Tom Corbett and first lady Susan Corbett helped kick off a challenge to increase the number of students who eat breakfast at school by 30 percent. Schools with the biggest breakfast bumps will win cash and other prizes, including appearances by NFL players, as part of the program that runs through March.

The state government’s role in the incentive program is mostly ceremonial. There are no state dollars invested in the challenge, which is funded by private groups, said Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller.

Enticing school children to eat breakfast directly affects the quality of their education, say advocates for the hungry.

“Kids who consistently miss breakfast are negatively affected in terms of their health and development as well as their ability to concentrate and perform well academically,” Bolante said.

But cafeteria managers and nutritionists say putting breakfast in children’s stomachs isn’t always easy.

“You can’t make them eat,” said Kevin Oswald, food service director for the Selinsgrove Area Schools, one of two districts in Snyder County.

More than 40 percent of the students in the county are eligible for a free breakfast or a reduced-price breakfast that costs no more than 30 cents. But just 22 percent, or 455 of the 2,067 students who qualify, take advantage of it, according to an analysis by the Pennsylvania Hunger Coalition.

Only Pike County has a lower rate of students from low-income families eating breakfast.

Oswald said he’s tried all sorts of things to get more kids to eat breakfast.  This year the district started offering a hot breakfast option every day.

The main challenge has much to do with the fact that the customers are kids, Oswald said.

For one thing, almost all kids who eat breakfast at school qualify for a free or reduced-price meal. Some students may feel that heading into the cafeteria to get something to eat before class will stigmatize them, Oswald said.

Or students may not arrive at school until the last minute, leaving little time to eat, he said.

Those who arrive early often prefer to spend time socializing with friends, rather than grabbing some grub.

In many cases, those who go hungry feed their appetites with junk food.

One way schools fight the perception that only poor students eat breakfast is by marketing the meals to all students, said Mullaney in Wattsburg, where full price for a school breakfast is $1. (In Selinsgrove, full price is $1.25.)

Mullaney said one idea is to offer a “bring a friend to breakfast deal.” Her school serves bagged breakfasts – including hot items – so that students can grab the food on the way through the cafeteria.

Mullaney said the value of breakfast is unquestionable. Many schools provide free breakfast to all students during testing periods, she said, which suggests that educators recognize the importance of the first meal of the day.

In Sharon, Connolley said it’s not only important to get students to eat breakfast. They also should be eating the right kinds of breakfast.

Connolley said she has a beef with the U.S. Department of Agriculture because its school lunch guidelines don’t provide enough emphasis on protein. For students in Sharon, she said, she tries to incorporate more protein into the breakfast menu because it “fires the brain.”

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