By DAVID GREEN
Every morning is breakfast time for Morenci Elementary School students—every morning for everybody.
This marks the second week of the school’s participation in the Universal Free Breakfast concept and the early reports are good.
“The teachers really love it—I’m hearing a lot of positive comments—and the kids seem to love it, too,” said Mary Fisher, dean of students at the elementary school.
Some children don’t eat any breakfast at home, she said, and a lot of research has shown a positive correlation between a good breakfast and academic success.
The program will be tried for 30 days while teachers and administrators take a close look at how it’s run.
Food service staff member Ruth Ann Mansfield said the concept fits into the staff’s desire to have more breakfasts served.
“We’ve been wanting to feed more elementary kids anyway, so we’ve talked about boosting the breakfast program,” she said.
Two Morenci staff members visited the Decatur school district to see how they organize their free program, then the planning started here.
Moving from an average of around 70 breakfasts a day to more than 300 sounds like a lot of work, but Mansfield said that isn’t the case. It’s more a matter of changing responsibilities and reorganizing the day.
Teachers might have raised an eyebrow when learning breakfast would be served in the classroom rather than in the cafeteria, but so far it’s been welcomed. The process benefits from good organization, said second grade teacher Robin Borton, and that’s clearly been a selling point for her.
Each morning cafeteria staff members deliver a large plastic tub to each classroom, containing breakfast items for each student.
Accurate counts must be recorded for reimbursement through the federal school lunch program.
Large, wheeled cans are brought into the hallway for easy collection of trash to make work easier for the custodial staff.
“This teaches kids a little responsibility, too,” Mansfield said, “to have them clean up after themselves.”
She was concerned that breakfast might interfere with academic time, but that hasn’t been a problem. Some teachers have students look over some paperwork while they eat.
Overall, Mansfield said, the classroom provides a better atmosphere than the cafeteria, and alleviates the need to set up and take down tables before physical education classes begin.
Fisher said she and teachers were concerned about the quality of the meals—kids don’t need a jolt of sugar in the morning, for example—but the food service staff has worked toward creating a healthier balance.
For example, only white milk is served for breakfast, Pop Tarts are the whole wheat variety and baby carrots are served some days.
Last Friday, the meal consisted of dry cereal, milk, a banana and a cheese stick.
“We’ll make some tweeks to the menu after we find out what the kids like,” Fisher said.
How can a cash-strapped district afford to serve a free breakfast to 300 children?
Actually, the district is coming out ahead, although the district didn’t initiate the program to make money, Mansfield said.
With current commodity prices and reimbursement rates, she expects the program will continue to pay for itself. Even if it costs a little, she believes the benefits will make the effort worthwhile.
The reason it’s working out financially here and in certain other districts is due to the number of families eligible for free and reduced-price meals.
Any school with 40 percent or more of families qualifying for free and reduced meals is designated as “severe need” and federal reimbursement increases. The elementary school is at the 50 percent level.
The district receives $1.68 for each free meal served (rather than the regular $1.40 reimbursement) and $1.38 for each reduced-price breakfast served (rather than $1.10). All schools receive 25 cents for each full-pay breakfast served.
The cost for each breakfast averages 75 cents. The meal served Oct. 6, for example, produced a profit of 18 cents. Any profit will be put back into the breakfast program to allow the food service staff to serve additional items or food that might increase the cost of a breakfast.
Each school district can choose what to serve, but guidelines regarding proteins, vitamins and fat must be followed.
“Every teacher I talked with today said it’s going great and they love it,” Mansfield said last week.
In the long run, Mansfield knows what she would like to see from the breakfast program.
“I hope it shows that test scores go up and I hope to see the behavior problems go down.”
Fisher isn’t about to jump to conclusions, but she’s wondering if it’s just a coincidence that she had far fewer discipline problems to handle last week.
Check back in a month, she says.