Increasing learning time with free breakfasts
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.
| 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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