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Posted at 5:30 AM ET, 01/14/2011

Increasing learning time with free breakfasts

By Jay Mathews

Some people think it's wrong to read at the table. The Mathews family has a different view. We talk to each other at meals if the mood strikes us. But much of the time, particularly at breakfast and lunch, we are looking at newspapers and magazines, and sometimes even books, while ingesting carbohydrates, fats and whatever else tastes good.

I know, it sounds rude. But it is a habit that more Americans, particularly younger ones, should adopt. That is why I am so happy to read that the Walmart Foundation, in association with teacher, principal and nutrition groups, is giving $3 million to promote free school breakfasts, and that a new report by the Food Research and Action Center says 663,000 more children got free school breakfasts in 2009-2010 than the year before -- nearly 10 million kids who could be reading and chewing if we did this right.

The Washington-based center, dedicated to eradicating domestic hunger and undernutrition, is not satisfied with the results of its survey of school breakfast participation in 29 large urban school districts. "More than half failed to reach a majority of their low-income students with the important morning nourishment they need to succeed in school," the report said. This included Prince George's County, with only 43.1 percent eligible for federal lunch subsidies also getting a free breakfast, and the District with 48.4 percent.

"School breakfast improves children's diets, increases school achievement and positive student behavior, reduces obesity and builds lifelong healthy eating habits," the report said. Those are the effects of good nutrition, augmented by moves to reduce sugar and trans fats in the free breakfast menu. They failed to mention what intrigues me: the possibility that free breakfast for all could add at least 30 minutes of learning time to the school day.

I have been watching children eat free breakfasts for many decades. The National School Lunch Program provides free or reduced-price midday meals to students whose family incomes are close to or below the poverty line. It is one of the great government policy successes of the last century, a vital step in providing the social and economic supports outside the classroom that disadvantaged students need to do well inside the classroom.

The center's report suggests that most of the free breakfast programs operate during regular school hours. But I have seen several schools that have all students arrive a half-hour early so they can get breakfast and start their work right away. Some hand out eggs, milk and tater tots along with some warm-up questions in math and reading. Some students just read. But those schools make it plain that this meal is not for chatter. They are nurturing their minds as they feed their bodies. They can talk to their friends during lunch.

One of the many reasons I fell in love with morning newspapers when I was the age of the free-breakfast kids is that they put me in touch with the world, and my favorite comic strips, at the beginning of the day. I was often at my most alert once I got to the breakfast table, and seemed to absorb information while eating breakfast better than I did in class.

School systems have searched for ways to add learning time to their school days without adding crippling costs. Instituting a free breakfast for all children, at least in those schools where most of the students are from low-income families, could do that if it was agreed that the day would begin a half-hour earlier to accommodate the morning meal.

On average, about 40 percent of U.S. public schoolchildren qualify for federal lunch subsidies. The center's survey looked only at districts that had larger percentages of low-income children, from 43.6 percent in Seattle to 52.9 percent in Prince George's, to 69.4 percent in the District to 86.4 percent in Dallas, the largest percentage of all the districts participating in the survey. Those low-income children are the most likely to have fallen below grade level, and the most likely to benefit from another 30 minutes of reading or doing class exercises.

Thirty more minutes is not nearly enough to raise those students to the levels they are capable of, but it’s a start. The center's report notes that programs that offer breakfast for all, without bothering to identify who is poor and who is not, tend to cost little more than the traditional income-based lunch programs because they save money on administration.

I will have to ask my colleague Miss Manners how bothered she is by my family's insistence on bringing reading material to the table. I don't think it will hurt the nation's schoolchildren to adopt such a habit while they are at school. A quiet, thoughtful read while eating, at least in my experience, makes for a settled stomach and better mind -- as long as nobody steals the sports section before I am through with it.

By Jay Mathews  | January 14, 2011; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  000 more students got free breakfasts last year, 663, Food Research and Action Center, National School Lunch Program, combine reading with eating and learning time increases, free breakfasts more common in schools  
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Maybe the Post should donate papers to schools so students can read them at breakfast. Might be a way of growing some new readers.

Posted by: RedBird27 | January 14, 2011 7:31 AM | Report abuse

What a great idea! Thanks, RedBird27.

Posted by: jaymathews | January 14, 2011 8:13 AM | Report abuse

Redbird, I applaud your thinking. That resource is provided here in Jacksonville, Florida. I can however say the newspaper I noted was usually stacked in the main office instead of distributed. Again though, I agree on another level.

We must be judicious about the material we give children to read. A book could become the haven for cereal or toast crumbs. Trust me on this one.

I read frequently children are not provided enough books in the classroom, yet they have computers. Obviously oatmeal and computers are not necessarily a heavenly match.

It must be replaceable, it should be appropriate for the age, and it should be informative. It could be Math Monday, or themes of that sort, but here is another twist.

One of my favorite things at breakfast as a kid was reading the (then called) Funny Papers (today Comics) section. It was reading, it was fun, and many times life lessons are found there that might be missed on front page news. Maybe even sports. Keep it simple, keep it fun, but keep them engaged!

Applause for Redbird!!!

Posted by: jbeeler | January 14, 2011 8:45 AM | Report abuse

I'm beginning to question your respect for children. "They can talk to their friends during lunch." That's it? Would you like a day like that? Do you remember being a kid? I can remember that by the time I got home I was ready to be on the phone with my friends. We wanted to talk to each other all the time. I'm all for giving kids breakfast and for giving them the option to read, but not requiring it of them. Kids deserve a chance in their day to be kids.

Especially in the sorts of neighborhoods you are discussing these children are often stuck at home in their apartments after school because the area isn't safe enough for running around with friends. When would you like them to have that social time? Or do you think it is unimportant in their development?

I grew up begging for the chance to read at the dinner table. Kids should read, a lot. But kids should also have opportunities to interact with other kids as they want to do. It's possible to be too focused on the academics and lose sight of the whole child.

(And I say all of this as a 1st grade teacher in a Title I school.)

Posted by: Jenny04 | January 14, 2011 9:20 AM | Report abuse

I am a powerlunch reading volunteer at a DCPS, and my student NEVER eats his lunch. Sometimes I can coax him into 5-6 bites, but the coaxing takes time away from reading (he loves reading books). The food is not appetizing to him and often is cold. Which is more important: developing reading skills and expanding knowledge or feeding the body for improved brain function?

Posted by: CarolynProctor | January 14, 2011 11:47 AM | Report abuse

Food for thought:

Public Health Nutr. 2010 Apr;13(4):537-43. Epub 2009 Sep 22.
Television viewing, computer game play and book reading during meals are predictors of meal skipping in a cross-sectional sample of 12-, 14- and 16-year-olds.


Media Education in the Practice Setting
An Over view of Media [they include books here] and the Pediatrician’s Role

Not a fan of reading at the table. Okay, ask Miss Manners, but also consult several registered dietitians. Furthermore, are you are warming your own pop tart to accompany that sports section? Gee, if I had made blueberry pancakes for my family and out came a book (TV, etc.), that child (or hubby) would not have received more than one pancake unless the book was shut. And yes, many, many books in our home - we are all avid readers. Of course, they had the option of making their own breakfast and reading their book, but never happened, never seemed to accur to them to read during a meal. Well, actually, not until one of my kids came home from grad school did I ever see reading during a meal. But, he would sit at the kitchen bar with his book/s opened wide, and I knew that he has so few minutes to read through those massive medical books. But, he was appreciative of homecooked meals, and I knew it, and he would still fill me in on stuff he was reading. Just fine.

Posted by: shadwell1 | January 14, 2011 1:30 PM | Report abuse

Wouldn't it be better if all families could afford to feed their children a nutritious breakfast at home before they came to school? The need addressed by WalMart's money reflects on the increasing level of poverty in this country, not an educational opportunity.

Posted by: tstahmer | January 14, 2011 1:31 PM | Report abuse

Man, starvation or even hunger is so not a problem. Save the money; let the kids eat breakfast at home.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | January 14, 2011 3:18 PM | Report abuse

Holy cow - we use dinner time to deprogram our kids after their days at what was once "our" DCPS school, now led by a KIPP/TFA-trained principal. Where, by the way, they get free breakfast already during what used to be instructional time. During this breakfast time, you might be happy to know, they are not permitted to speak to their classmates. They are permitted to read.

Yeah, that's not prison.

Posted by: dcparent | January 14, 2011 3:46 PM | Report abuse

Tater tots for breakfast? How is that a nutritious start to the day?

How about eggs, whole wheat toast with trans-fat free margarine, and a piece of fruit?

Posted by: CrimsonWife | January 14, 2011 10:03 PM | Report abuse

My son has no appetite to eat before he leaves for school so early in the morning. At his middle school, a MoCo public/magnet, breakfast is brought to the classrooms during their first period class. The kids get something to eat while they do their classwork. When I observed it, I thought it was a brilliant idea.

Posted by: sheckycat | January 15, 2011 1:42 AM | Report abuse

Maybe WalMart can give these same kids free clothes because low-income parents can't afford designer clothes and the latest 'must have' $150 sneakers.

While I do agree that there ARE kids going to school hungry, not all of those kids are from low-income households. Most low-income parents can and do get food stamps to help them pay for food. What some parents do with those food stamps is quite another story.

The US needs to quit most of these 'feel good', 'pity them, so give them free stuff' programs, and make parents be parents again. Get off the couch, get yourselves out of bed, feed your kids, take care of your own kids. Quit being so (blank)lazy so other people will raise your kids for you.

Posted by: momof20yo | January 15, 2011 8:08 AM | Report abuse

"School breakfast improves children's diets, increases school achievement and positive student behavior, reduces obesity and builds lifelong healthy eating habits," the report said.

That's assuming lids aren't eating heathful meals at home. Then they feed them greasy Tater Tots, eh?

Although many DO consider it bad poor manners to read during a meal, they are being taught it's not...more of the "whatever you do is okay, regardless of what everybody else thinks" mentality.

Quit trying to pamper kids and EDUCATE them...or has the system forgotten how to do this? Stop that "feel-good" crap and prepare them for the real world.

Posted by: flipper49 | January 15, 2011 9:43 AM | Report abuse

For Jenny04---You make an intriguing point. Does anyone else agree? I have been visiting inner city schools, and inner city homes, since 1982, as well as read much research about them. Those children have many problems, but I have yet to find anyone who complained that they did not get enough social time.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 15, 2011 11:08 AM | Report abuse

Momof20yo, do you know why the National School Lunch Program (which also covers breakfasts) was begun? It was after World War II, because the military had found that so many recruits and draftees were too malnourished to be fit to serve that it was a threat to national security. So it isn't about bleeding-heart softies at all, but about ensuring our military strength.

Jay, by law, a credentialed teacher (not a parent volunteer) must be present with those kids during that 30 minutes. So what's the solution for that?

Posted by: CarolineSF | January 15, 2011 1:02 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Janny04. I've had kids who go home and stay inside, often under the supervision of an older sibling, because there won't be a parent around until early evening and is isn't safe outside. Sometimes they do their homework, but more often they stare at a TV or play video games.

But I see another issue that hasn't come up yet. A lot of people who are not teachers do not understand that a classroom is a community in which the members need to get to know each other, learn to appreciate a variety of other people, sometimes work with someone they don't like, and otherwise develop social skills and friendships. The controversy over recess being a waste of time (an argument which, mercifully, seems to have gone away) is symptomatic of this lack of understanding of how important the social factor is in creating a healthy classroom atmosphere.

Posted by: aed3 | January 15, 2011 1:06 PM | Report abuse

If you can't keep a box of cornflakes in the cupboard and a half-gallon of milk in the refrigerator, you should turn your children over to Social Services.

I thought this is what Food Stamps were for.

Posted by: corco02az | January 15, 2011 9:13 PM | Report abuse

Jay, if you think the high percentage of kids that qualify for free breakfast are true numbers in PGC

you've swallowed the koolaide, I'm afraid

ALOT of these kids come from homes that CAN afford to feed their kids but choose not to. Surely you saw the story relating to DC's "welfare reform" and by the looks of the adults in charge, they are HARDLY missing a meal because they seem to be 30+ pound overwieght adults...maybe just too lazy to get up early in the morning and provide meals for their own children.

While applause should be given to WalMart and providing financial resources to this program, there are many that will take advantage of the same.

Most of these people have ability to provide meals for their children, esp. breakfast...and they most certainly should, but apparently will not because it's not necessary to do so because of the "free meal" available.

Absolutely, no child should go hungry and better prepared for class instruction.

But a lot of these people do have ability to provide meals for their kids.

They are given the choice of not needing to do so. What message is given to kids to establish life survival skills and establishing priorities as it relates to taking care of what you've chosen to bring into the world?

The breakfast programs sounds nice. But like the welfare system, it's creating a culture of people who don't have real motivation to live independently and responsibly. It cultivates generations of famalies to remain dependent on government hand outs.

And as previously mentioned, ALOT of parents are just downright taking advantage of a benefit they surely do not need or qualify for.

Theory behind this benefit is very positive. I'm afraid how it will be applied will continue external (government) dependency taught to kids and at very early ages.

Another question though, what ARE the kids doing in class that do not meet free breakfast program qualification?

Posted by: PGCResident1 | January 15, 2011 9:19 PM | Report abuse

There is another dimension to the taxpayer-funded breakfast and lunch programs which Mathews isn't covering at all. whatever small grants Walmart might make are bait for the buckets of corporate profits which are being extracted from our poorest and hungriest kids.

Mathews cites a report by FRAC, which presents itself as dedicated to the mission of ending hunger for our children. While some nutrition faculty do sit on its board, so do industry representatives who dominate policy for school lunch programs, without disclosure of their financial conflicts or transparency.

The FRAC website makes this observation,
“Clearly, the recession created more childhood hunger and fueled growth in the school meal programs.”

Here are some quotes and links to stories the Washington Post should be reporting, and local community efforts Mathews is ignoring.

Losses in Sodexo’s U.S. Education Sector May Foreshadow Poor Results to Come

“Sodexo may be having trouble winning accounts at those school districts that are considering outsourcing for the first time—an area that the company has identified as a major growth opportunity...
...Even before the Berkeley schools’ announcement, the Nation Institute’s Investigative fund published an article on Sodexo’s treatment of rebates which concluded: “The developments in New Jersey suggest that the gravy train may be coming to an end.” These words may prove prophetic, given a September 16 letter from U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro urging U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to begin an investigation by the Officer of the Inspector General and to alert state education and agriculture agencies—which oversee the U.S. National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs—to the $20 million settlement.”

Better DC School Food
“... A report I recently published based on documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act showed that D.C. Public Schools had received more than $1 million in rebates from Chartwells, its contracted food service provider, since Chartwells took over the job two years ago. The rebates help explain why children in D.C. schools are often served brand-name products of dubious nutritional value. But the rebates Chartwells declared on its invoices totaled only 5 percent of purchases, a rate some observers say is low--and certainly far less than the 14 percent cited by Cuomo in the Sodexo case...”

Posted by: mport84 | January 16, 2011 10:53 AM | Report abuse


I get the impression that most people advocate more time for everything. But I don't think that is true. More is not better; better is better. If one can be more effective in a shorter amount of time, albeit for breakfast or in a longer school day, then one can do far more things than wasting a large amount of time.

Posted by: ericpollock | January 16, 2011 12:24 PM | Report abuse

to sheckycat: Why is it the school and teacher's responsibility to feed your child during first period? If he's not hungry before he goes to school put a nutri-grain bar in his backpack. This is one of the major problems in our public schools, especially our urban public schools: schools and teachers are having to do too much parenting and not enough time for teaching.

Posted by: UrbanDweller | January 16, 2011 4:18 PM | Report abuse

A bowl of oatmeal (not instant) takes 2 minutes in the microwave, and is both inexpensive and nutritious. Nonfat milk is easily made from dry milk and is both inexpensive and nutritious. A peanut butter or cheese sandwich on wholegrain bread and an apple is a fine lunch; I grew up with many kids who lived on the above pattern. Feeding their kids is the parents' responsibility.

Posted by: momof4md | January 16, 2011 5:37 PM | Report abuse

my thanks to mport84 for the details on FRAC.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 17, 2011 9:02 AM | Report abuse

UrbanDweller wrote:

"If he's not hungry before he goes to school put a nutri-grain bar in his backpack. This is one of the major problems in our public schools, especially our urban public schools: schools and teachers are having to do too much parenting and not enough time for teaching."

Your opinion does not comport with the reality of DC public schools. My kids were not allowed to bring a snack in their Ward 3 elementary school after 2nd grade and lunch was not until 12:30. (At Deal Middle School, my son did not have lunch uhtil 1pm some days; snack was also forbidden there.)

The teachers' refrain? Feed them a big breakfast. I wanted to scream every time I heard it. I prepared eggs, toast, sometimes pancakes, oatmeal . . . but kids' small stomachs can only ingest so much, particularly at 7:00 am.

My kids were starving by 10:30 am. They were not allowed to have that granola bar that you suggest -- until I got a doctor's note for them. How ridiculous is that?

Of course, on testing days, teachers allowed a snack. The mindlessness of it was astounding. Teachers are not doctors, and every pediatrician will tell you that children and adolescents should not be forced to go 5-6 hours without food.

Posted by: trace1 | January 19, 2011 11:15 AM | Report abuse

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