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It’s second period at Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet in Boyle Heights and the sound of squeaky wheels coming down the hallway interrupts the students working frantically on the school yearbook.
A student worker walks in with a small steel cart and lifts a blue bag to reveal cereal boxes, milk cartons and granola bars. Most students push back their chairs and head toward the front of the class to pick up their breakfasts.
Throughout Los Angeles Unified School District, this new program, Breakfast in the Classroom, provides food for children in their classrooms between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. The menu changes daily, and students eat at desks that were previously used strictly for schoolwork.
The Breakfast in the Classroom program is part of a national effort to increase participation in school lunch and breakfast programs by children whose families’ incomes make them eligible for free or reduced price meals.
One of the main reasons for bringing food to the students was the high number of kids who qualified for free and reduced meals, but weren’t taking advantage of them. According to LAUSD Deputy Director of Food Services Laura Benavidez, before the program about 190,000 students district-wide were eating breakfast at school daily ”“ and 450,000 were not. “Only 29 percent of our students were coming in to eat breakfast,” she says.
Studies have shown that children who don’t eat enough are less focused in school, which results in lower academic performance. Share Our Strength, an advocacy group that works to end hunger, says studies show that a child who eats breakfast does 17.5 percent better in a subject like math, attends school on average of 1.5 more days in a school year and earns higher standardized test scores.
In LAUSD, 80 percent of students live in families with incomes below the poverty line, and many students are skipping meals. Kenneth Sanchez, a junior at Bravo High School, says he typically does “not eat anything at all throughout the whole day.” Kenneth explains that he is too busy to make food for himself in the morning, and is busy with activities during the day.
The Breakfast in the Classroom program started in late 2011 in elementary schools and then expanded to middle schools in 2013 and to high schools last year. By April, all 640,000 students in the district will be able to have free breakfasts.
The expansion of the program will be paid for with $20 million in federal funds. In order to get funding, the district needs to meet nutritional guidelines and allow all children to participate.
While most teachers support the idea of making sure kids are fed, they are also some of the major critics of the program.
“I think one of the hardest parts for the teachers is that we don’t have the time to take care of business,” says Brandon Nakama, a history and debate teacher at Bravo High School. The time spent on breakfast throughout the school year amounts to a 48-hour cut in instructional time.
Some also don’t like what the eating does to the classrooms. Nakama says the kids leave a mess behind from food spills. “You get stickiness all over the floor, and the stickiness spreads and then [creates] dirty footsteps,” he says.
Others, like Harlaee Santana, a digital imaging teacher at Bravo High School, prefer to focus on benefits of the program. “It’s a moment [students] get to share with each other and interact,” she says.
Students also have complaints. Some don’t like it because they have lost a break and feel trapped in the classroom, “I feel like it’s a waste of time, because some people don’t even eat the food, and we’re forced to sit in a room,” said Zenith Farin, a Bravo High School senior.
Regardless of critics, district officials say there has been an 89 percent increase in student participation over the last three years. Teachers track the number of students eating breakfast, and incentives are given to schools based on participation. When a school has more than 70 percent of students eating breakfast, it receives 20 cents a day for each student above the 70 percent rate, to be used at the school’s discretion.
According to Benavidez, the district is willing to make improvements and seeks feedback from students, teachers and parents. “We take it very, very seriously. We want the program to be successful,” she says.