Students at King Middle School grab breakfast Monday. The superintendent is expected to add a proposal to expand free breakfast district-wide in his budget for the 2020-2021 school year. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND — All students in the Portland School System would receive free breakfast next year under Superintendent Xavier Botana’s proposed 2020-2021 school budget.

The plan is to expand free breakfast to all students at Lyseth, Rowe, Longfellow, Ocean Avenue, Peaks Island and Cliff Island elementary schools, whether they qualify for free school meals or not. All students at East End, Presumpscot, Reiche and Riverton elementary schools, Deering and Portland high schools and King, Lincoln and Moore middle schools already receive free breakfasts.

Extending free breakfast to all the schools in Portland could cost an additional $20,000.

“We are trying to address the needs of our students across the board. We have been able to do that at the middle school and high schools. It is now time to attempt to do something for all our elementary students,” said Superintendent Xavier Botana.

A public forum on Botana’s proposed 2020-2021 school budget is set for Wednesday, Feb. 26, at 6 p.m. at East End School. Botana will present his budget to the school board March 10.

Breakfast at King Middle School Monday included a choice of cereal, apple sauce, breakfast bar, apple, orange, juice and milk. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

The effort, which could serve 1,600 more free breakfasts in the school district comes as part of a national push to make sure students are not going hungry. In Maine last year, the Legislature passed the Breakfast After the Bell law that helps school districts fund alternative ways to offer breakfast, such as delivering it to classrooms or providing a grab and go option, in schools where more than 50 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch.

The Legislature also passed a law requiring schools to provide a meal to a student who has requested one regardless of that student’s ability to pay,  and it prohibits treating students who have school lunch debt differently from those who don’t. It also requires schools to communicate about lunch debt with a student’s parent or guardian.

More than half the students in the Portland school system, 53%, qualify for free or reduced lunch. Close to all of the students at East End, Presumpscot, Reiche and Riverton qualify.

During the last school year, the Portland district offered 482,000 breakfast meals across its 16 schools, close to three-quarters of which were free, according to the Maine Department of Education. That was a slight reduction from the 486,800 meals served the prior year.

“We have witnessed the positive impact of school breakfast on student’s health and academic performance. Just as students are provided with books, computers and desks to be set up for success, we must ensure every student has the fuel they need to learn and thrive,” said Meredith Cook, Maine Hunger Initiative Social Change Advocate.

Much like Portland schools’ lunch menu, the breakfast menu varies throughout the week depending on the school. This week the offering at the elementary schools included breakfast bars, bagels and cream cheese, cereal and fruit, such as oranges, bananas, apples and pears. The meals, Portland Public Schools Nutrition Director Jane McLucas said, always include two grains, fruit and milk.

Botana said the cost could be covered through the $30,000 the district anticipates it could save by offering breakfast at Lincoln and Moore middle schools in the cafeteria rather than the classrooms.

McLucas, who started as food service director in fall 2015, said the district opted for the breakfast in the classroom program because it is more likely students will accept a meal if it is brought to them rather than them having to go get it. However, although participation increases that way so does food waste, she said.

“Through the program, we found we had a lot of food waste because when we would send it to the classroom, the leftovers coming back to the cafeteria wouldn’t necessarily be able to be saved,” she said.

Two years ago King Middle School dropped the breakfast in the classroom program and returned to breakfast in the cafeteria.

“That has been a successful model. We don’t have as much participation in that model, but we are able to control our costs better,” she said.

The other two middle schools, as well as the elementary schools, still operate under the breakfast in the classroom program, but at the high schools, breakfast is offered in the cafeteria.

McLucas said making sure students are well-fed is critical to their readiness for the academic day.

“We know breakfast is the most important meal of the day and we want to make sure all of our students start their day off right,” McLucas said.

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