Free breakfast for all students enrolled in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is starting to catch on, said Amy Harkey, assistant director for CMS Child Nutrition Services.
The program, approved last June, provides breakfast at no charge for all students and is available regardless of household income. The CMS Board of Education approved the program in hopes free breakfast could make an impact in fighting child hunger.
“The major reason we are doing this is because, No. 1, hungry kids can’t learn. And No. 2, it takes away the stigma that only kids in poverty eat school breakfast,” Harkey said.
So far, the district has seen an increase in breakfast participation, though not as big of an increase as they had hoped, Harkey said. The average daily breakfast in the whole district up until Sept. 20 for 2012 was 31,000. This year at the same time, the average daily breakfast stands at 39,213. Harkey said, out of the extra students eating school breakfast this year, there has been an increase in both students who were previously eligible for free breakfast and students who previously had to pay for breakfast.
But Harkey said she thinks the program will continue to grow as more and more students and parents learn about the Universal Breakfast program.
“I think as word-of-mouth travels, the program will continue to grow,” Harkey said. “We wanted to do a soft start and then do some more advertising here in the future.”
Harkey said October marks the time of year when schools will start to see systems and routines really form, and the time of year when Child Nutrition Services hopes to encourage more students to eat breakfast at school. They have a goal to at least see current numbers double, Harkey said.
And with principals and teachers on board, Harkey said there is a good chance that goal will eventually come to fruition.
“The parents are starting to get on board with this, too,” Harkey said. “It’s something we can do as a department – if there is a small part Child Nutrition can do to help support graduation rates, we’re all for it. Kids who eat are more successful.”
At schools like Quail Hollow Middle School, that has a mixture of students from different household incomes, the free breakfast program has already been very successful. Carol Freligh, the school’s cafeteria manager, said about one-third of the school’s 950 students are eating breakfast, up more than 50 students from last year at 300 students. Around 45 of those students previously were required to pay for breakfast, Freligh said.
New options like yogurt and Nutri-Grain cereal bars are very popular and tend to “just fly out the door,” Freligh said, as well as some of the grab and go items like muffins, bagels and breakfast sandwiches the cafeteria offers.
“A third of students is good, but we hope it will catch on even more,” she added.
Freligh said when cafeteria workers encouraged students in years past to eat breakfast before major exams like end-of-grade tests, students typically respond. She envisions more and more students will realize their breakfast options as the year continues.
Being part of a late school like Quail Hollow, which starts at 9:15 a.m., some students might not want breakfast at school because they’ve had time to eat at home. But with late breakfast also comes a late lunch. Freligh said she’s encouraging students to eat breakfast even if they’re not that hungry. Many of the items can be saved as a snack later on, she said, when hunger strikes before lunch time.
“I think it makes such a difference. If they are hungry, we encourage them to just go eat,” Freligh said.