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Friday, August 24, 2012

Schools to Provide the 3 R's and 3 Squares a Day

Missouri's DESE, in partnership with the Midwest Dairy Council, just announced a contest to see which schools could increase the number of children receiving breakfast at school the most. The goal is to increase breakfast participation by 20 percent this year. Schools who make big gains can win awards from $1,000 to $4,000. Sounds good right? Feed kids. Get Money. It's a win-win. But why the big push to have schools be a meal provider?

Missouri Commissioner of Education Chris L. Nicastro said,  "The challenge ties in to the Department's goal to become one of the top 10 performing states in education by the year 2020." But to tie to that document you have to stretch causality pretty far to show how supplying a meal meets the goal of having "All Missouri students will graduate college and career ready." None of the strategies listed on DESE's  10x20 plan mention, even a little, the idea of providing food for the children as a strategy or action towards this goal.

If you look further into it, the idea of increasing breakfast participation comes from the USDA which says, "Participation in the School Breakfast Program is important – primarily as a way to help meet the nutritional needs of students, but also to help schools receive maximum reimbursement and run a successful program." (emphasis added)

The Post Dispatch reported,"If 60 percent of children from low-income children in Missouri got a school breakfast, the state would get an additional $7.4 million in federal money to cover the cost, the research center shows." Last year, only 22 percent of students in Missouri participated in a school breakfast program.

So the idea is to sign up more kids so you can get more federal money. I thought the federal government didn't have money to burn, that they had to borrow it from China. Why are we looking to expand their expenditures?

Pay attention private and charter schools, because you are automatically included in this challenge if you participate in the National School Lunch Program and will be categorized into one of four tiers based on district enrollment.They want you dependent on the federal government too.

The USDA site contains all kinds of helpful information to help schools increase their breakfast participation.  Including this chart which seeks to identify the barriers to participation.

Comment - Nutritional Environment, show me the case where children feel any stigma for receiving free stuff these days. Are the writers of this chart living in the 50's?

It is interesting to note that in none of the official information about these programs does anyone mention need. There is no evidence offered, even anecdotal from teachers, that there are starving students in the classrooms who would be star students if only they weren't so hungry in the morning. There is no cry from parents saying "I can't give my children breakfast. I just wish the school were able to help me." All the documentation starts with the assumption that you already have the goal of increasing participation in the breakfast program. According to the USDA, "Important changes generally occur when one person sees the need for change and is willing to take action." Only one person who thinks more kids should have breakfast is all this is needed to launch a massive program.

The Post article goes on to site the programs in Ferguson-Florissant  and DeSoto School Districts which offer in-classroom breakfast programs to all students regardless of need. Not surprisingly these programs have received a positive response. Free food, offered in class so you don't have to start working right away - what's not to like? Even the economics of such a program make sense to some people.

Food service director Scott Williams' comment, "provid[ing] free breakfast to all students regardless of income... makes financial sense for districts with a high percentage of low-income students," needs a little more explanation. Is he looking at the per child cost which of course goes down as you spread that cost over a larger audience? Wouldn't it be even less expensive if the food was only provided to the very small number of students who really needed it and whose parents wanted it, or if parents provided the food?

Another food services director is quoted by the Post as saying, "Kids really liked it, and teachers noticed the students behaved better." The fact that food impacts brain function is not in question. But this broad brush approach to crediting meals with behavior goes a bit far. Where is the data they are so fond of that proves it is the nutritional content of the meal that is making the kids behave better? Perhaps its just the idea of using a social time to energize the kids before the buckle down to work that is affecting behavior. We need the data! (sarc)

The entire program seems to be focused on getting people used to the idea that the school is a meal provider.  They started with lunch. It is now expected that k-12 schools provide a lunch. The child who brings one from home is more likely to be exception than the ones who buy it. So now they turn to breakfast. 

First they will get us used to that idea, that kids can come in early and get a full breakfast or a grab-n-go meal to be eaten in the classroom (because teachers don't have enough distractions already and custodial services needs more rooms to clean from food debris.) Then will come the cries that what is provided isn't healthy enough. It's not magically turning the students into great learners and that is the fault of the quality of food provided. Think that's crazy?  Isn't that exactly what we are hearing about the school lunch programs? Next thing you know our little gesture at helping kids who might need a little something extra in the morning has become an expensive far reaching program. 

The last step will be to have the school also provide dinner.  This is not conjecture. It is already in the Community Schools descriptions. I know the federal government would like to be our parent and provide everything a parent is supposed to. They seem to look on low income families as in desperate need of their services, if only they could make them more readily visible, available and convenient. Apparently they haven't met the low income families who take it as a matter of pride to provide for their children so, even though they qualify, they will not sign up for such programs. The government is worried about stigmatizing the child who comes in to eat breakfast. Why aren't they worried about offending the low income family, who is providing food for their children, by insisting that they need the school to do it for them?

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