Virginia first lady advocates for free student breakfasts

Virginia first lady advocates for free student breakfasts

By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)

Of the 1,444 students at Francis C. Hammond Middle School, principal Pierrette Hall said around 1,000 are eligible for free breakfast at school but only about 300 take advantage each morning.

With that in mind, the school will roll out a universal program called Breakfast in the Classroom beginning April 4, meaning all students can have an early-morning meal at their desks regardless of eligibility.

The program, one of several pioneered by the No Kid Hungry campaign, has been in place at William Ramsay Elementary School for five years, and Alexandria City Public Schools officials said they plan to roll it out across the system.

Virginia first lady Dorothy McAuliffe, a No Kid Hungry supporter, was at Ramsay Monday morning to help launch National School Breakfast Week to raise awareness of the need for students to start the day with a good breakfast. The visit also coincided with hunger-fighting initiative Virginia Hunger Solutions releasing its first annual report on the importance of school breakfasts.

Hall said there currently are a variety of reasons why only a small number of students take advantage of Hammond’s breakfast offerings.

“If all of their friends are going in one location and if that location is not breakfast, then they go where their friends are,” she said. “Sometimes they’re rushing and may just not want to eat breakfast; they get to school just in time for class and so sometimes those can impede a child’s ability to want to go to breakfast. Although breakfast is offered whenever they want it, they’re not going to make the extra effort to go get it.”

Hall said the new initiative should foster a greater community spirit within classrooms since now all students will receive free breakfast and eat it together. She also pointed to the introduction of breakfast ambassadors — three volunteer students per class who will help transport meals to classrooms and encourage their peers to eat the morning meal — as a way of bringing them together.

The program will be funded entirely by a grant totaling $158,000 from Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom, which includes more than $9,000 from Mid-Atlantic Dairy Partners for coolers that keep food and milk fresh. Other partners that helped fund the PBIC grant include the Walmart Foundation and the School Nutrition Foundation, among others.

ACPS grants officer Greg Tardieu said that PBIC and No Kid Hungry look to bring breakfast programs to schools where 75 to 80 percent or more of students are on free or reduced lunches but have less than 60 percent participation within that figure. Tardieu also said it presents other challenges for schools as they look to implement a program.

“The logistics of this are, if I’m going to go from 300 breakfasts in the morning to 1,300 breakfasts, that’s 1,000 kids getting fed that aren’t being fed right now,” he said. “Logistically, we need more cooler space, freezer space, we need coolers to hold the milk, and we need support staff. There’s a whole load of things that go into that. It’s easier said than done.”

There are three models for free breakfast programs being rolled out across Virginia as well as nationally. Eddie Oliver, who serves as program manager for No Kid Hungry within the office of Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), said in addition to Breakfast in the Classroom, there are programs called Grab and Go and Second Chance Breakfast.

The former is a program where students have the chance to pick up their breakfasts from the cafeteria and then take it with them, while the latter gives students the chance to pick up breakfast from a kiosk or the cafeteria between the first and second period. Oliver said the free breakfast models take root through successful pilot programs that can be replicated elsewhere.

“Part of what we do on the No Kid Hungry team is take the success stories from other divisions and share those across the state,” he said. “We would like to see every school in Virginia doing an alternative breakfast model, and so we work within divisions to get pilot models set up. But then we’ll take those success stories and share them with others, who maybe don’t have an example to work with.”

With that in mind, a crew is filming a documentary about the rollout at Hammond and its impact on individual students. Ramsay principal Michael Routhouska said the program has helped remove the stigma associated with receiving free breakfast at school, and it has helped deal with issues like discipline that can stem from student hunger.

“That stigma was a big piece of it as well, especially with the older kids,” he said. “Now that it’s for everybody and it doesn’t matter whether you’re eligible or not, it just totally gets rid of that. Our community, they’re working two to three jobs to support their families, and so the time in the morning to get up and feed their kids, it’s a lot of time for them.

“When they know that they can just get their kid up, throw the school uniform on them and send them on the bus and then they’ll eat when they get here, it’s a really great thing.”