Free morning meals for Berkeley students

February 7, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
Parents of Berkeley school students are not worried about making breakfast this morning because an innovative program there has every child eating breakfast at school, regardless of need.

Free, universal breakfast is not a new concept, but what's different in the Berkeley Unified School District is that the meal is actually incorporated as a part of the school curriculum. What started as a seed of an idea to feed the kids breakfast has bloomed into a fully operating program this year, district-wide.

Jameson Wang and Lamont Neal are focused on their mission. These Berkeley kindergartners volunteer to help cart food back and forth for their school's breakfast. Back in the classroom, they know what they like, from cereal to bananas, fruit and honey bread. All these foods are part of a universal, free breakfast eaten daily at Le Conte Elementary.

This meal sprung from a pilot program started at one school in the Berkeley Unified District in 2005. It's grown to include all 16 schools in the district and now 9,600 students, K through 12th grade, are provided breakfast.

Funded by both federal government reimbursements and the Berkeley district, it's free for all. Family income level isn't a factor.

"The kids that need breakfast the most are the kids who come from homes where they maybe can't afford as good breakfast, or there's no time and the kids aren't really getting a breakfast; and if you only offer breakfast to those kids, then it becomes stigmatized that only the poor kids get breakfast," explains Le Conte Elementary School Chef Ann Cooper.

This way, everyone is fed together. It's actually scheduled as the first part of the school day.

Along with the benefits of nutrition, the breakfast incorporates a block of time for social interaction.

"It also gives kids and parents, I think, a chance to hang out at school together. So like for me, I don't just drop her off and run out the door," says parent Aimie Jory-Hile.

"This is just as healthy as the food we serve at home. It's exactly what we'd buy at the grocery store, and it helps us get out the door in the morning and get here on time," says parent Grant Faulkner.

And when the students are on time and fed, teachers notice the difference.

"I feel like they're able to really focus and sit down," says Natalia Bernal, kindergarten teacher.

A study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association confirms that breakfast improves diet and has "positive effects on alertness, attention, (and) performance on achievement tests."

"Frankly, undernourished children cannot learn," says Cooper. "It should be just a right of humanity that every child gets a healthy breakfast."

Ann Cooper, who has championed the breakfast program from the start and runs it at Le Conte Elementary, says this morning meal is also about saving family values.

"It's really something we've lost in America. I mean, most kids don't sit down at a table on a regular basis," says Cooper.

But in the Berkeley Unified School District, they do.

The cost of each breakfast served is $1.95. Some of that cost is subsidized by the federal government. It's based on the number of students whose families live below the poverty line.

So far, the program is in full-operation, but there are concerns that possible state budget cutbacks to education could trickle down to affect school nutrition programs next year.