Maryland in-classroom breakfast program proves fruitful, yet most schools are starved for funding

by NATALIE KORNICKS
Capital News Service

All of Katie Beaumont’s sixth-grade students are already in their seats when the bell rings for homeroom. They hang their backpacks on their chairs, say hello to their friends and choose which type of pancakes they want for breakfast.

As part of the Maryland Meals for Achievement Classroom Breakfast Program, Corkran Middle School in Anne Arundel County is one of 360 schools that receive state funding to offer free in-classroom breakfast for students every morning, regardless of family income.

Although research indicates that students perform better in school after eating breakfast in class, less than half of all eligible schools participate in the program due to a lack of funding.

In order for a school to qualify for the program, it must be a participant in the federal School Breakfast Program—which provides income-based free and reduced-price breakfast to children in the school’s cafeteria—and have at least 40 percent of its enrollment approved for free or reduced-price meals, under state law.

“The only way schools can participate is if schools have enough money to do so,” said Lisa Klingenmaier, an anti-hunger program associate for Maryland Hunger Solutions, established by the Food Research and Action Center.

While an additional 75 schools received program funding for the 2013-2014 school year, including Corkran Middle, there are still 475 eligible schools that do not receive money to support the initiative, Klingenmaier said.

It would cost $7.6 million to fund the remaining schools, which would feed about 250,000 more students, she said.

“Since 1998 this has been a wonderful program, but it has not been fully funded,” said Anne Sheridan, executive director of the Governor’s Office for Children.

Last year, an additional $1.8 million was allocated from the state budget for Maryland Meals for Achievement, increasing the total funds to $5.2 million, according to Samantha Kappalman, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office.

This year, 43 food advocacy organizations in Maryland, including Maryland Hunger Solutions and the Food Research Action Center, requested the same amount from Gov. Martin O’Malley for the 2015 fiscal year.

“That’s something we’re working on right now,” said Clarissa Hayes, an anti-hunger program associate for Maryland Hunger Solutions. “The governor hasn’t put it with his budget yet, so we’re letting him know about the program.”

According to Kappalman, it is still early in the budget process and the governor’s decisions won’t be known until the budget is released in January.

But funding isn’t the only reason not all eligible schools provide in-classroom breakfast, according to Brenda Schwaab, the Maryland State Department of Education’s breakfast program specialist.

“Not every school can do it,” she said. “We’d love them all to do it, but facilities wise, staffing wise; they can’t, and we don’t have enough funding.”

In order for Corkran Middle School to provide breakfast for all students, the food services manager, Kathy Morrison, 55, arrives at 5:30 a.m. every morning.

Morrison prepares 39 plastic bins—one for every homeroom. Each bin includes fruit juice or fresh fruit, a variety of milk, and one grain, such as pancakes, breakfast bars or fruit loafs for all 600 students.

“[The program] gives all the kids a chance to eat breakfast, and they can see what their friends are eating—maybe realize what they’re missing out on,” said Morrison who has worked at the school for 23 years.

Before breakfast was served in the classroom, only about 15 percent of eligible students at Corkran Middle took part in the federal School Breakfast Program. Now, almost 64 percent of students participate Maryland Meals for Achievement.

Nationwide, participation in the federal breakfast program is as low as 20 percent in some schools, according to Schwaab. But involvement in Maryland Meals for Achievement averages 60 percent, with 170,000 students taking part, she said.

Research that was conducted during the first three years of the program by the Maryland State Department of Education, starting in 1998, showed that students who have breakfast in class have better attendance rates, decreased suspension rates, improved student behavior and attentiveness, and may even have higher test scores.

“The students start the day on the right foot; it gives the classroom a sense of community and the parents really like it too,” said Beaumont, the sixth-grade teacher. “I can see them coming down the halls in the morning looking into the classrooms to see what’s for breakfast that day…[and] they have more energy in the classes before lunch.”

Most students had never eaten breakfast in their classroom before, but Alisha McBride, 11, had been doing so since elementary school.

“I like eating breakfast here because I’m already at my desk,” said McBride, whose favorite breakfast food item is the Cini Minis.

Although this is the first year Sarah Naples, 11, has eaten at her desk, she likes the change.

“Sometimes I forgot to eat breakfast at home,” she said.

Serving breakfast in the classrooms also eliminates the stigma for those students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals, according to Corkran Principal Jolyn Davis and county Food and Nutrition Services Director Jodi Risse.

“It’s more like a restaurant that really brings everyone together; a family of one,” Risse said. “And what better way to show the importance of breakfast than to have a teacher as a role model.”

Sheridan said the program “actually changes the way that schools provide breakfast in a way that makes it a lot easier for kids … You have to put the food in front of the kids as soon as they hit school property, and right before class starts, and they’ll eat it.”

And teachers find it easier to be teaching kids who have food in their stomachs, Sheridan said.

“We have never had a school ever go back once they’ve done this,” she said.