Why Teachers Are Battling Against Free Breakfast in Their Classrooms

Takepart.comMay 6, 2013

Principal Susan Lasken said her students have a hands-down favorite day of the week: Waffle Day.

That’s when nearly all 635 kids arrive at Sunnybrae Elementary School in Winnetka, California, promptly at 8 a.m. They are giddy and seemingly ravenous, ready to relish every bite of the golden discs slathered in warm syrup behind their desks.

“The kids just love it,” said Lasken, “On those days you can count on kids showing up on time.”

The popular breakfast is one of dozens of meals served through the Breakfast in the Classroom program, which uses the first 15 minutes of the school day to pump kids full of the healthy and nutritious calories they need to prep their brains for optimal learning.

Ample research shows students who participate in school breakfast programs have higher math scores than those who skip or rarely eat an early-morning meal. Absences and tardiness are also reduced when kids are fed at school.

While many of the country’s larger school districts already run similar programs—Baltimore, Houston, Chicago, San Diego—Los Angeles Unified School District recently expanded its Breakfast in the Classroom Program to a third of its campuses and now feeds nearly 200,000 children.

The boost in enrollment in the federally funded program is expected to add $6 million to L.A. Unified’s annual budget. A small percentage of that will be kicked back to each school without any strings attached. A delightful treat for cash-starved schools after several years of severe budget cuts.

And yet the program has come under sharp criticism from teachers and administrators. In an online survey conducted by United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), 51 percent of teachers said they disliked the program and want to put an end to it.

Many are now asking, are full stomachs worth the tradeoffs?

The greatest concern is the loss of instructional time. District heads say the entire process of distributing the food, eating the meal, and cleaning up should take no more than 15 minutes a day. But teachers argue wrangling students can take up to 45 minutes, especially with kindergarteners and first graders.

UTLA President Warren Fletcher said teachers, whose job performance relies on improving test scores, simply can’t afford to lose that time.

Even if [Breakfast in the Classroom] is limited to 15 minutes, that is 1 hour and 15 minutes per week, or 2,700 minutes (almost eight entire school days) per year!

Fliers distributed by UTLA to parents broke down the math:

“Even if [Breakfast in the Classroom] is limited to 15 minutes, that is 1 hour and 15 minutes per week, or 2,700 minutes (almost eight entire school days) per year! That is 45 hours of instructional time per year that your child has lost!”

“It’s an unfortunate situation and I’m really torn about it,” said Lasken. She’s grateful students at Sunnybrae Elementary—all of whom qualify for free lunch—are getting an extra meal, but there’s no way to skirt the issue that it’s an added pressure on teachers.

“They don’t love it,” she said.

Half of the staff has complained about the time it steals from their prep time before school starts and the strain it puts on rushing through the day’s lesson plans.

“Contractually, I can’t give them more time. I’d have to pay them out of my own pocket if I wanted to make the day longer.”

Lasken said parent volunteers have been key to getting the routine down to a solid 20 minutes a day. She considers that a victory.  

Another major problem is cleanliness in the classroom.

Anne Zerrien-Lee, a teacher at Esperanza Elementary School, responded to UTLA’s survey in an online video. In it she said cereal day is the worst. Cleanup involves pouring leftover milk into the classroom sink and making sure no “milk-crud” or cereal “slush” clogs the drain because that can take weeks to fix.

Juice and milk are consistently spilled on floors that are rarely mopped, and forgotten crumbs attract pests. An anonymous respondent to the survey said, “We live with a week’s worth of crumbs and a year’s worth of tracked through liquid.” Another added, “The classroom is not the appropriate place for children to have breakfast.”

Lastly, there’s the issue of food quality.

The waffles that are such a hit are high in sugar and carbohydrates. Not exactly “brain” food.

Research published in Physiology and Behavior found students who eat breakfasts containing a balance of protein, fat, and carbohydrates have an improved attention span and memory, and they experience fewer signs of frustration while working on school tasks. Meanwhile, those who consume a high-glycemic diet tend to crash after a few hours.

Proponents of the Breakfast in the Classroom program contend all meals adhere to the guidelines set out by the Obama administration’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, a $4.5 billion initiative passed in 2010 to improve the nutritional value of school meals.

Nicola Edwards is a nutrition specialist with the California Food Policy Advocates, a nonprofit group that helps implement the breakfast program. Edwards said most school districts are going “above and beyond USDA standards.”

She adds that L.A. Unified has some of the most stringent standards in the country. The district posts nutritional information for all of its school menus online for anyone to access.

“All of the products are whole grain—even the waffles. The pancakes are made from sweet potatoes and they’ve done a lot to reduce the sugar in the food,” she said. “And meals are high in protein.” A recent focus group ranked the egg and cheese burrito among student favorites.

Edwards admits the breakfast program is flawed, but she’s convinced they’re only growing pains. “There’s no doubt that this program works, and it’s good for the kids and good for test scores.”

A number of impending changes should help streamline the program, she said. The district plans to provide teachers with more cleaning supplies, wet-naps will be added to meals, and the dreaded Cereal Day will be eliminated completely in the near future.

Plans to cut down on waste are also in the pipeline. Foods unpopular with kids, such as a breakfast bar with a strong taste of cumin, are being rotated out. Parents are now told not to feed children at home.

Last week, controversy over the program’s future lead to a rally outside of Hooper Elementary, a South Los Angeles school where 100 percent of students qualify for free lunch. More than 100 parents and cafeteria workers asked teachers to reverse their position before the school board votes on whether to continue serving breakfast in the classroom. The board will take on the controversial issue on May 14.

A majority of the seven school board members have said they support the program, but if it is eliminated, schools will go back to providing free breakfast in the cafeteria. The impact of the reversal would be twofold, according to district officials.

First, participation in the breakfast program would likely drop to previous levels, below 30 percent. That means most kids would go through the first part of the day hungry. And, second, the district will lose out on millions of federal dollars. Projections based on student enrollment estimate L.A. Unified will receive $20 million a year once the program is expanded through all grade levels.

UTLA President Warren Fletcher assured them, teachers want to compromise. “These problems can and must be overcome so students get a nutritional breakfast and a full instructional day. It is not an either/or for children.” 

Related Stories on TakePart:

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Vanessa Romo is a Los Angeles-based journalist and public radio reporter. Her work has aired on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Marketplace.  @vanromo | TakePart.com