New America Media, News Report, Carolyn Goossen,
Just after 8:30 on a Tuesday morning, kindergarten students at Melrose Academy in Oakland are sitting at tables of four in their classroom, munching on bananas and drinking orange juice or eating crunchy cereal with milk. Then they clean up and go to the carpeted area where they choose a book off the bookshelf.
In a 7th grade English classroom down the hall, students eat the same breakfast while engrossed in their novels. The room is completely quiet except for the two designated breakfast helpers who hand out the food. Most students barely look up from their books until they start to eat.
This is the daily routine at Melrose Leadership Academy, but it is unique within the Oakland Unified School District, where no other school offers in-class, free breakfasts. Melrose principal Myra Contreras started the program because her middle school students weren’t using the free breakfast program offered in the cafeteria before classes started. She says on average only five or six students out of nearly 200 would partake, and probably 90 percent of her students weren’t eating breakfast at all. Now, 85 to 90 percent eat breakfast. She believes the change has been positive for her students, the majority of whom are Latino and low income.
A report released in December by the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group, found that the federally funded School Breakfast Program is under-utilized by low-income children in California, and the Oakland district was identified as particularly problematic.
Approximately one million low-income California children participated in the school breakfast program in 2008-2009, compared to the 2.4 million students who participated in the lunch program, according to the report, “School Breakfast Scorecard.” For the second year in a row, California ranked 33rd across the nation in school breakfast program participation by low-income students.
Twenty-five urban districts across the country were examined closely in a companion report, and the three California districts included were San Diego, L.A. and Oakland. Of the three, Oakland has by far the fewest children using their breakfast program and it is the only district where breakfast participation has actually declined.
The reason, many say, is that most public schools in Oakland have yet to offer alternatives to early morning breakfast programs, such as in-class breakfasts or “second-chance" breakfasts where a break to eat is offered during the morning.
“In California, where they’ve started to offer breakfast in the classroom or second-chance breakfast, you do see a dramatic increase in participation,” says Tia Shimada, a nutrition policy advocate with California Food Policy Advocates. “This happens for a number of reasons. The main thing is, you are not asking kids to get to school early. If the family has a tight schedule or the child has to ride the bus, they don’t necessarily have 10 minutes to spare.”
Jennifer Le Barre, nutrition services director for the Oakland schools, says there are several reasons the breakfast program is under used.
“First, we’ve seen a decrease in enrollment. Second, we’ve done parent surveys and we find that our Asian and Hispanic families want to serve their children breakfast at home,” she said, particularly for elementary school children. “And for the last several years, our focus in the nutrition program has been on the quality of the meals.” Now she wants to focus on improving participation in the breakfast program.
Le Barre attributes the Melrose program’s success to the leadership at the school. “They are willing to add extra time to the day because of a committed principal. In order to do more non-traditional services, it takes a commitment on the part of administrators.”
Roma Groves, a first-year principal at Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School in West Oakland, says roughly one-third of her students participate in the breakfast program, while almost all of them eat the school lunch. All of the students are eligible for free lunch because of the high numbers of low-income students who attend. Nearly 70 percent of the students are African-American, and the majority live in Acorn community housing, a large public housing complex down the street.
Groves is frustrated by the fact that many parents can’t get their children to school on time, let alone early enough to eat breakfast. “We’re here, we are doing our part,” she says. “The only reason kids don’t get access to food is their parents. Tardiness is an issue at our school. A lot of kids come in late. They say they got up late, they had to take siblings to school. But to me these excuses are not acceptable.”
Even with the success Melrose’s principal Contreras has seen, she doesn’t believe that in-class breakfasts should be mandated.
“There are a lot of problems with the system,” she said. “The main thing is to service the problem: malnutrition and kids not eating. It’s about a school community and how they want to deal with it.”