At North Hills Middle School, students are greeted by a grab-and-go breakfast cart as soon as they get off the bus.
Thanks to Pennsylvania’s universal breakfast program, all food at the kiosk – from fruit and muffins to eggs and milk – is free for students, regardless of income.
It’s a scene state officials hope is repeated in schools across the state: The state budget includes a $46.5 million increase to provide free breakfasts to all schoolchildren in Pennsylvania this school year, or about 1.7 million children.
Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, touted the new funds at several press events across the state.
“Universal free breakfast puts every child on the same playing field and gives every child the opportunity to succeed,” he said during a visit to Penn Hills Elementary School in August.
Many studies show that eating breakfast at school can help improve student concentration and comprehension, reduce the risk of food insecurity, and ensure students have access to the vitamins and minerals they need. need.
However, schools have historically struggled to feed all children eligible for the breakfast program. According to a report from the 2021-22 school year, only 52 students participate in breakfast for every 100 school lunch participants nationwide.
In North Hills, participation in the breakfast program has nearly tripled since the universal free breakfast program took effect. But it may be more difficult to offer free breakfast to children because they may be late for school or don’t have enough time to get to the cafeteria and sit down to eat a meal .
“We’re learning a lot about administrative support: making sure kids have enough time if they’re running late, that they’re encouraged to take their time, go eat breakfast and start the day right.” , Lindsay said. Radzvin, North Hills food service director.
Effective ways to increase the number of children eating breakfast include mobile “grab and go” carts like those offered in North Hills, a “second chance breakfast” that can be eaten after the bell rings class bell, and delivering breakfast to classrooms and allowing them to eat in class during class time, according to Jamie Baxter, executive director of the Pittsburgh-based advocacy group Allies for Children.
These models “essentially integrate breakfast into the school day,” said Chelsey Novak, manager of child nutrition programs for the Community Food Bank of Greater Pittsburgh. “I would encourage — if schools aren’t using one of these options — to look at it and see if it might be a good fit for them,” Novak said.
Keystone Oaks Food Service Director Kevin Lloyd said just as teachers fight to ensure students have adequate instruction time, he fights to make sure they have enough time to be fed .
On a good day, students would have 20 minutes to eat, but late buses and other disincentives often cut the time students have to eat breakfast in half. The district also has a policy that limits meal times to the school cafeteria as a safety precaution for children with severe allergies.
“That’s our biggest liability,” Lloyd said. “Because it’s not cool to eat in the cafeteria.” Kids want to go to the gym or spend recreational or social time, and they would unfortunately prefer that to eating in the cafeteria.
On average, the district has seen 319 of its approximately 1,900 students participate in the breakfast program on any given day this month, compared to 216 daily participations last year. Lloyd said he would try to get more students to eat breakfast at school by offering “creative menus”: hot chocolate in the winter, smoothies when it’s warmer.
Children attending public schools in Pittsburgh and some other high-poverty districts were previously all already eligible for universal free meals. (If at least 40 percent of a school’s students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, the school has the option of offering free meals to all students under a federal policy known as name “Community Eligibility Provision.”) Breakfast was also free for all children last school year due to some remaining state funding for food and nutrition – however, this was one-off funding.
In the Baldwin-Whitehall School District in Pittsburgh’s South Hills, district officials made breakfast free for all elementary school students before the pandemic.
“We didn’t have the turnout we wanted,” said Randal Lutz, the district’s superintendent. “The children were hungry. The children would be entitled to the meal. They simply did not have access to the meal. And so we started to really ask questions about why. »
The district ended up with a classroom breakfast model, Lutz said. The effort was successful in getting more kids to eat, although it took buy-in from teachers and other staff to make it work.
“A meal program cannot and does not work in isolation,” he said, emphasizing the change required by adjusting bus schedules and cleaning classrooms.
Lutz said he hopes free school meals will be considered as much a part of the school experience as paper, pencils, computers or books.
“We would never think that children in public schools would be forced to buy their textbooks,” he said.
Efforts to increase participation in school breakfasts have gained momentum across the country since rules for free meals during pandemic expired. Eight States have permanently adopted programs that make breakfast and lunch free for all students.
But Crystal FitzSimons of the Food Research and Action Center noted that the success of such programs depends on the extent to which districts take the necessary steps to ensure students can access these meals.
“I’m not sure all students will ever participate in the school breakfast program, and that’s OK,” FitzSimons said. “The secret, I think, is to make sure that every child can access school breakfast if they want to.”