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Article of Interest - School Nutrition

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Bridges4Kids LogoMD A Full Stomach Leads to Better Learning, Schools Say
by Corinne Purtill,, Aug. 20, 2003
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More children than ever before are getting their breakfast and lunch at county public schools, thanks to a pair of programs that seek to ensure that no child has to go through the school day hungry.

But while more kids are relying on the Free And Reduced Price Meals System, schools are also using meals as a means of building community, increasing attendance and attentiveness and reaching out to students of different cultural backgrounds.

Last school year, 31,122 students -- 22.3 percent of Montgomery County Public Schools' total enrollment -- took advantage of the FARMS program, said Kathy Lazor, a registered dietician who is director of MCPS' division of food and nutrition services.

While that's more children than the school system has fed before, the percentage of students eligible for the program was just under the all-time peak of 22.7 percent in 1997. The percentage of FARMS-eligible students dipped during the late 1990s and is steadily climbing again, Lazor said, "certainly a sign of the economy."

Earlier this month, the state Department of Education announced that 5,000 children at 13 county public schools would be eating a free hot breakfast every day as part of the Maryland Meals for Achievement program.

The program, which began in 1998 as a pilot program at one school, has since expanded to 97 schools throughout Maryland. All students at participating schools receive breakfast in their classroom at the beginning of the school day, regardless of their FARMS status.

East county schools participating in the program are Burnt Mills, Georgian Forest, Highland View, New Hampshire Estates, Oak View, Viers Mill and Weller Road elementary schools and Parkland Middle School.

To be eligible for the program, at least 40 percent of a school's population must qualify for FARMS. This year, 1,543 schools from 19 school systems applied for the money.

Brookhaven Elementary was one of those. Principal Rob Grundy said that he was "disappointed" that his school, where just over half of the students eat FARMS lunches, wasn't selected. No Montgomery County schools were added to the program this year, he said.

"For kids that really aren't able to get [breakfast], I think it's extremely important," he said. "You look at basic needs, kids have to be fed . . . in order to learn."

Although the meal may be a second breakfast for a few students, for most it is an opportunity to start the day with a nutritious meal that may not be available at home.

"Considering the group of children that are in a school that qualify for this program, obesity is not the issue," said Marla Caplon, supervisor of the division of food and nutrition services.

In addition to the increase in concentration and attendance that has been linked to starting the day well-fed, educators say they are noticing other benefits from the program as well.

"I can't say it reduced tardiness or increased attendance, but when you walk into the room, there is a feeling of community," said Highland View principal Joanne Steckler.

Steckler estimated that about 80 to 85 percent of her school's students participate in the program. Before they started serving Maryland Meals for Achievement breakfasts three years ago, students were expected to be at their desks at 9:15 a.m. to start the school day. Those who ate breakfast at school ate in the cafeteria before the bell.

Now, children are in their desks at 9 a.m., where their teachers serve breakfast before the learning starts. Teachers lose those 15 minutes of prep time before class starts, Steckler said, but it's a worthy investment for the feelings of community and well-being that students receive in return.

When children start their day eating together, it sends the message that "here is a place where people care for me, they care for my physical well-being, they care for my intellectual well-being," Steckler said. "It's a very concrete showing of caring."

Before coming to New Hampshire Estates, principal Jane Litchko worked at Jackson Road Elementary, which does not participate in the program.

"We had a lot of kids who didn't get the food that they needed, or we had kids eating in the cafeteria and were late to class," she said.

The free breakfast program "fills a need for so many families with children," she said.

Reaction to the program among parents was split at first, Steckler said, particularly along socioeconomic lines.

As the program took off, however, parents who at first didn't think their children needed a school breakfast felt that they were missing out by not participating, she said.

At Weller Road Elementary, the free breakfasts have improved attendance and tardiness, said PTA president Heather Chafin.

"My kids like it," she said. "It helps with the social skills. It's like if you go to a pizza parlor with your friends."

"I think it's great, especially since there's a lot of kids for whom that will be the first meal of the day," said Peter Smeallie, parent of two Georgian Forest Elementary students.

As the county's demographics have changed, the way food is served has changed as well. Cafeterias are dishing up more vegetarian options to accommodate students' religious or cultural needs, Lazor said. Food and nutrition services has also experimented with some ethnic meals. Lazor noted that some rice dishes went over particularly well last year.

"I think people get the impression that if you put anything in front of a child they'll eat it, and that's not true," she said. "They are very particular about what they like and don't like, and we are a nutrition program and if they don't like what we're feeding them we're not doing our job."

Sometimes, students don't know how to eat the food in front of them. Students who are new to the country may be baffled by meals that are taken for granted as American staples.

"They don't know that the hamburger goes inside the bun like a sandwich," Lazor explained. Dining staff have showed many young children how to eat burgers, she said.

While breakfast and lunch may be small parts of the school day, cultural associations between food and being cared for may be powerful enough to impact the learning environment in places where academic programs alone can't reach.

"The community, the belonging, those are critical pieces that are not as easy to address as the academic pieces," Steckler said.  


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