CPS: More kids eating breakfast

A handful of schools avoid the mandate to serve food in class during school hours.

June 2, 2011

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(WBEZ/Linda Lutton)
A boy checks what's for breakfast on his way into school at Audubon Elementary.

Chicago Public Schools says many more kids are eating breakfast now that it is being served in class during school hours.

Chicago schools have been gradually rolling out the federal Breakfast in the Classroom program, which is now mandatory in CPS grammar schools. The final schools begin the program Thursday. Nearly 300,000 students at some 475 schools are now participating in the program.

Early numbers show the percentage of kids eating breakfast has jumped from 26 percent to 62 percent at schools that added the program, said Louise Esaian, head of food programs for CPS.

“There are hungry children in every school that we have,” said Esaian.

Most schools previously ran before-school breakfast programs.  A total of 192 schools have been running Breakfast in the Classroom without publicized complaints, some for two years.

But since the Board voted to mandate the program in January, parents, particularly those at schools with a greater population of middle-income students, have criticized Breakfast in the Classroom for generating waste, shortening the school day, dishing up sugar and giving food to kids who may not need it.

Principals and teachers have argued the district should allow schools more flexibility in determining how to run their breakfast programs.

“Let’s be open to flexibility and making sure one size doesn’t fit all,” said John Price, principal at Audubon Elementary. We don’t treat kids that way when we teach them reading. That lesson should apply to breakfast as well.”

Price has gotten his wish. The district says it’s allowing seven schools, including Audubon, to forgo breakfast in some or all of its classrooms. Concerns over severe allergies at Audubon mean students in grades 5 through 8 are still eating in the cafeteria before school instead of in classrooms, where a spill during one period could affect an allergic student later in the day.  Kindergartners and first graders are eating in the cafeteria once the bell rings due to concerns over mess and lost instructional time.

Esaian says the district is watching the seven “pilot” schools closely and wants to see participation in breakfast rise there to a level that would be expected if the schools were serving breakfast in class.

The district has vigorously defended the mandate that the program be implemented in all schools; it says the economy has meant more children are going hungry. But some parents, principals and teachers question whether there’s a financial motivation behind CPS’s adamancy.

Esaian says the goal of Breakfast in the Classroom is ensure that all students eat breakfast so they can perform better in school.  She said district officials did take into account that the program would not add to the district’s structural deficit.

CPS cites federal guidelines that say school food services must operate on a nonprofit basis, with all revenue used to support or improve the food service; school districts are not required to maintain separate cost and revenue records for the lunch and breakfast programs.

Chicago’s new CEO, Jean-Claude Brizard, said he’s been keeping an eye on breakfast during daily school visits. He said teachers at Howe Elementary on the city’s west side didn’t lose even a moment of instructional time due to breakfast.

“So I’ve been in in some schools where I’ve seen amazing systems around breakfast,” said Brizard.

But it hasn’t been all good. “I went to one school where I saw French toast in an inch of syrup and white bagels,” the CEO said. “That bothered me."