Two legislators will try again to change a law calling for schools to feed kids breakfast after the bell at the start of the school day.
The two lawmakers, local school superintendents and a teachers union president say the current Breakfast After the Bell Program law doesn’t allow them to serve the food the way it works best for them – instead forcing teachers to serve a meal at a child’s desk, creating a mess and taking away from learning time.
They are asking that the law be made more flexible, allowing them to pick the time and method breakfast is served.
But advocates of the existing law say that allowing schools to choose how and when to offer breakfast means risking that they will do it in the cafeteria before the bell rings – leaving out many of the neediest students who don’t get to school early and who would remain hungry.
“This (program) is a common-sense response to child hunger, and I think the concerns I’ve heard have not outweighed the kids’ need to get food,” said Jennifer Ramo, executive director of Appleseed, the lead advocacy agency that pushed for the 2011 legislation and is fighting attempts to change it. She said having breakfast before the bell would mean missing about two-thirds of the students now being fed.
Sens. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, and Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, both retired schoolteachers, filed a bill, SB 144, on Thursday to change the Breakfast After the Bell Program to the Breakfast Program and allow schools the option of when and where they serve breakfast.
“I want to be very clear that I support the breakfast program. We just want school districts to have that flexibility in how to serve that breakfast,” Kernan said.
The superintendents at both Albuquerque Public Schools, one of the largest school districts in the nation, and Rio Rancho Public Schools support amending the law to allow flexibility in serving breakfast.
Many schools in New Mexico served breakfast before a 2011 state law mandated that elementary schools in which at least 85 percent of students qualify for free meals serve it to all children after the school bell rings. Before the law, and still in many schools not subject to the law, breakfast for those in need is usually served in the cafeteria before school.
The 2011 law and the state Public Education Department also required that classroom instruction be delivered during the meal.
Because most public schools’ cafeterias are not large enough to handle an entire school population at once – lunches are usually delivered in staggered shifts – and because some schools, like those in Rio Rancho, have very tight bus schedules, schools were left with serving breakfast in classrooms.
And because breakfast isn’t served in the cafeteria, the food must be portable, which can result in a menu of prepackaged, often processed, foods.
Stewart said she visited a teacher recently whose classroom had a funky smell.
“I asked her, ‘What is that smell?,’ and she said, ‘I think it is spoiled milk in the carpet,’ ” Stewart said of the mess that comes from serving breakfast in a room not meant for eating.
The senators and union leaders say forcing teachers to serve food in class, what they say is often the only option by default, is disrupting the classroom and is doing so with less than healthy food.
Kernan said that children who have eaten do perform better in the classroom, but that feeding breakfast after the bell isn’t always best.
Kernan, with support from Stewart, introduced a similar bill last year, but it was killed in the Democratic-controlled Senate Education Committee.
Ramo said that larger school districts might have a more difficult time making fresh food when it is served in the classroom but that not all districts have that problem.
She said serving breakfast should take 10 to 15 minutes, but the senators and Ellen Bernstein, president of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, said that, in practice, serving breakfast sometimes takes 30 minutes. That includes helping kids, especially little ones, open the packages, then cleaning up and throwing away the unused food and returning boxes and bins to the cafeteria.
“Teachers are not against feeding kids,” Bernstein said. “But here a teacher, who is in a high-pressure situation with high-stakes testing, is being told you have to serve the food, you have to clean up the food, and you have to do it after your instructional day has started.”
Teachers at one APS elementary school have started collecting all of the uneaten food and taking it to a homeless shelter instead of throwing it away.
“There are problems with getting the food in the classrooms, the mess, the smell, the waste. But you balance that with leaving children hungry. It’s not a great choice,” said Sue Cleveland, superintendent of Rio Rancho Public Schools.
She said, though, that allowing schools the flexibility is important and that she would like to have that option.
APS acting Superintendent Raquel Reidy also supports changing the law.
Ramo said that the complaints about the program don’t trump the benefits and that children learn and behave better when they’ve had breakfast.
Researchers Scott Imberman and Adriana Kugler looked into breakfast served during class time – instead of before the bell – and reported that improved test results were “most pronounced for low performing, free-lunch eligible, Hispanic, and low BMI (low weight) students.” That research also says breakfast after the bell does “not translate into increased learning.”
Ramo said schools already have flexibility in where they serve breakfast. The law, she said, doesn’t say it has to be served in a classroom.
For example, she said, schools can make a takeout line of “grab-and-go” food, like burritos. And the meal doesn’t have to happen right after the bell; it just has to happen before lunch.
At least one middle school in Albuquerque already does this, but participation from students is voluntary, according to APS spokesman Rigo Chavez. He said 52 elementary schools are funded by the Breakfast After the Bell Program, with about 21,000 breakfast meals served every day. Rio Rancho has three elementary schools in the program, although other schools provide breakfast as well, according to spokeswoman Beth Pendergrass.
Allowing schools flexibility to serve breakfast means some schools will choose to serve it before the bell, and that is a problem, Ramo said.
She said only about 30 percent of children eat breakfast at school when it is served before the bell, compared with about 90 percent when the meal is served after the bell.
“At the end of the day, how many of these children need breakfast and how many can get it if you serve it before the bell?” she asked.
Ramo said that not all teachers have difficulty with the program and that she has heard from many who like it.
Second-grade teacher Angela Castillo at H.T. Jaramillo Elementary School in Belen said that the program “creates a comforting start for the day of learning ahead” and that she uses that time as part of her daily routine, even if it doesn’t create direct learning.
“Most students come to school hungry and depend on breakfast in the classroom before beginning their day,” she said in an email. “They may come from busy homes with parents that may not have time to prepare breakfast before school. I feel that having breakfast in the classroom prepares them for the day.”