County schools tabbed for in-class breakfast program
National program to provide free morning meals to all students at select schools
Some Prince George's County public school students will receive free in-classroom breakfasts this spring as part of a new national health initiative.
The county was one of five U.S. school districts selected to participate in the Breakfast in the Classroom program, a $3 million project funded by the Walmart Foundation. The initiative will provide free school-wide breakfasts to all students in select schools where participation in the free and reduced-price breakfast program has been low, despite high financial need among students.
"We live in a very rushed society, and our kids, in the morning, are focused on getting to school, and not whether they're eating right away," said Barbara Chester, spokeswoman for the Breakfast in the Classroom program. "This is a solution that we know works."
The county was selected along with public school districts in Dallas; Little Rock, Ark.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Orange County, Fla., based on financial need among students and interest from district officials, Chester said.
Of the approximately 127,000 students in Prince George's County schools, about 67,000 are eligible for free or reduced-priced breakfast and lunch. Of the eligible students, only 43 percent eat school breakfast, which is typically served in the school cafeteria before classes start.
Program organizers said the national participation rate is slightly less than 50 percent and that students often don't participate because of busy morning schedules, the inconvenience of arriving early and the stigma associated with the "low-income" label.
The program would provide breakfast for all students at select schools as chosen by the school district in classrooms after the opening bell. The county has not yet determined how many schools will participate but expects to start the program this spring, said county schools spokesman Darrell Pressley.
Pressley said students will likely have the option of declining breakfast if they have already eaten and that officials are unsure whether schools will alter schedules to make time for the program.
"It's going to take away from instruction time," said Theresa Saunders, president of the Prince George's County Council of PTAs, adding that the program is otherwise a "great idea." "The logistics of it may be something that I think will have to be well-planned, and it may require a longer school day."
Jay Teston, principal at Paint Branch Elementary School in College Park, said as many as 85 percent of his low-income students eat school breakfast, but that a free school-wide meal could help even more students. Paint Branch is a Title I school, meaning at least 40 percent of its students come from low-income families.
"The [low-income] stigma that we attach to the program is attached by the adults, not the student," Teston said. "If the student sees it as a social opportunity where they can also eat, they will see it as such."
Organizers' ultimate goal is to increase nationwide participation to more than 60 percent of assistance-eligible students, said Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, one of four national organizations managing the program. The National Association of Elementary School Principals Foundation, National Education Association Health Information Network and School Nutrition Foundation will also oversee the project.
The program is expected to run until the end of the 2010-2011 school year. Organizers will then evaluate participation to determine whether to continue in the fall or for however long funding lasts.