Monday, December 9, 2013
PORTLAND – The first-graders in Kristina Hewey's class at East End Community School quickly found their assigned seats Thursday morning, the first day of school.
First-grader Junior Eda opens his graham crackers while eating breakfast in his classroom at East End School in Portland on Thursday, September 6, 2012.
Gregory Rec / Staff Photographer
First-grader Nora Grace Monaghan opens up her graham crackers while eating breakfast in her classroom at East End School in Portland on Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012. At right is her classmate Junisia Oromo.
Gregory Rec / Staff Photographer
After coloring their new name tags and putting them in a basket, they went to the sink to wash their hands. On the way back to their seats, they stopped at a white laundry basket filled with individual servings of milk, graham crackers, sun butter and juice, grabbing one of each.
Providing free breakfast to students is a growing trend in Portland schools. It started at Reiche Elementary School five years ago, and this year about 2,070 students at five schools will get free breakfast. School officials are talking about providing it for all 7,000 Portland students within a few years.
Typically, students qualify for free breakfast based on low family income. But now, all students -- regardless of family income -- will be offered free breakfast with low-sugar cereal, pastries, breakfast bars and juice at Reiche Elementary, East End Community, Riverton Elementary, Presumpscot Elementary and Lincoln Middle schools.
The expansion isn't costing Portland property taxpayers a dime, because the federal reimbursement for each qualifying meal exceeds the district's cost to provide it. The district can use the extra money to provide meals to more students.
Proponents of the program say a good breakfast helps students perform better academically, physically and socially, and removes the stigma that free meals are only for poor kids.
The goal, says Food Service Director Ron Adams, is to provide free breakfast to all students within two years.
"When you have a high free and reduced (price meal) population that is at-risk for food insecurity, you have got to do everything you can to make sure kids have access to food," Adams said.
Students don't have to choose between morning recess and the free breakfast, as they have in the past.
With food offered in the classroom during the first 10 minutes of instruction time, students can still get exercise at morning recess.
"It makes everything work a lot better," Adams said. "It works out for me financially. It works out for the teachers for attention span, and it works out for the kids who may not have eaten much."
Nearly 54 percent of Portland students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, according to the Maine Department of Education. For any school that's above 50 percent, it makes sense to consider a free breakfast program for all students, Adams said.
Marcia Gendron, the former principal at Reiche Elementary, is credited with starting the program at East End Elementary when she became the school's principal two years ago.
"It's cost-effective and it's a great investment for learning," Gendron said. "Kids started coming to school with a positive attitude."
Adding Presumpscot and Lincoln to the program will add about $36,000 in food and supply costs, Adams said. But the $675,000 reimbursement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for free and reduced-price breakfasts is enough to cover the cost, he said.
Breakfast costs the district $1.03 a meal. The USDA's reimbursement is $1.85 for meals served to students who qualify for free breakfast, $1.55 for students who qualify for reduced-price breakfast, and 27 cents for students who pay full price.
Adams said the district's large number of students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals allows it to expand its program at no cost to local taxpayers.
Burlington, Vt., began offering free breakfast to all of its students in 2000, said Doug Davis, Burlington's director of food services.
Like Portland, Burlington is a popular resettlement community for immigrants, he said, so many students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
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