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Universal breakfast program starts smoothly

Profile image for By Britney Tabor
By Britney Tabor

A process officials at Hodge Elementary School in Denton thought would take 10 days to master has been accomplished in only four.

Officials at Hodge Elementary said the launch of its universal breakfast program this week went smoothly. On Tuesday, the school began offering a sack breakfast and milk to each of its nearly 700 students at no cost.

All students, including those who opt not to eat breakfast at school go through the meal line together to keep each class intact, school district officials have said.

“The program was a big success in that we increased the number of students eating breakfast,” said Principal Sam Kelley.

Kelley said this week the school served breakfast daily to an average of approximately 550 students, up from the average 350 students eating breakfast at school the week prior.

“By the second day, the children were seamlessly moving through where we directed them to go,” she said.

A concern for staff in starting the program was whether the school’s nearly 700 students could all get through meal lines and have breakfast completed by the time announcements concluded at 7:55 a.m. so that instruction could begin directly afterward.

Breakfast is now being served five minutes earlier at 7:15 a.m. Kelley said this week that all grade levels made their way through the meal line at breakfast by 7:35 a.m. By Friday, students were completing breakfast and having trash thrown away by the end of morning announcements.

Teachers are sitting with their classes at breakfast, Kelley said, and she sees bonds forming as a result. She said she’s also seen some reduction in tardiness since launching the pilot program.

She said that so far the program appears to be positive all around, and school officials will continue to observe throughout the year to see what improvements can be made. They also plan to chronicle the process to assist other schools in avoiding pitfalls they might encounter.

Kelley said she thinks the breakfast program will have an impact on starting the instructional day on the right foot.

“If serving the universal breakfast has a positive impact on our children and they’re successful, then the effort has been worth it,” she said.

Carrie Black, child nutrition manager at Hodge Elementary, said that although breakfast is a lot busier, the process has gone well.

Black said she surveyed students picking up breakfast in the morning to get their take on the program and a majority of students gave it a “thumbs up.”

Students are being asked each day for feedback on the breakfast menu, said Robin Wantland, the district’s child nutrition services director, and the school will increase its menu cycle from one week to two weeks.

District officials have said they intend to take what’s learned from the universal breakfast program at Hodge Elementary, and one that’s expected to launch at Evers Park Elementary School next semester, to prepare for Senate Bill 376, which will be enforced beginning in the 2014-15 school year.

The two schools received $5,000 grants from Action for Healthy Kids to promote universal breakfast.

Sam Teel, the school nurse at Hodge, said his campus intends to use the funds for education, purchasing equipment for the program and promoting the program and a family day set for April.

Teel said the school receives 65 percent of the grant up front, and how it progresses will determine if the school receives the grant’s balance.

Signed into law in May, state Senate Bill 376 amends the Education Code section relating to breakfast programs and mandates that a school district campus or open-enrollment charter participating in a national school breakfast program with 80 percent or more of students qualifying for a free and reduced-price breakfast must offer free breakfast to all students beginning in the 2014-15 school year.

The bill goes on to state that the education commissioner may grant a waiver of the requirement for one year to a district or open-enrollment charter if its school board or governing board votes to request a waiver.

Under the universal free breakfast program, schools will be required to pay the expense difference between the federal reimbursement and cost for providing the meals for free.

Wantland said schools will still be required to determine a student’s eligibility for a free, reduced or paid meal based on economic status and will claim reimbursements from the Texas Department of Agriculture based on a student’s eligibility, regardless of all students being offered free meals.

According to data provided by Wantland, as of Friday, 496 students at Hodge are eligible for free meals, 31 are eligible for reduced-price meals and 158 are eligible for paid meals.

For students eligible for free meals, schools will receive $1.89 per student, per meal; $1.59 for a student eligible for a reduced meal; and 28 cents for a student eligible for paid meals, she said.

The average cost for the universal breakfast meals is 80 cents, Wantland said. Currently, students paying for breakfast at the elementary level pay $1.10, while those eligible for a reduced-price breakfast pay 30 cents.

To break even on a program such as universal breakfast, almost 80 percent of a school’s population would have to qualify to receive free or reduced priced meals, she said.

“If we were trying to implement this program in schools located in higher economic areas, we would not be able to break even,” Wantland said.

It’s unknown just yet how much of an impact the government shutdown will have on the child nutrition program, Wantland said.

She said she’s aware there’s money left from last year from the Texas Department of Agriculture, which administers the School Breakfast Program, to pay October reimbursements, but beyond that, if things aren’t resolved at the federal level, reimbursements will dry up.

According to the Texas Department of Agriculture website, claims for the federal fiscal year, running from October 2012 to September 2013, will be paid and the U.S. Department of Agriculture “is working diligently to provide funding to pay for all October claims.”

Wantland said the district uses funds from reimbursement claims for labor and food costs and expenditures incurred to operate the child nutrition program.

If needed, she said, the child nutrition department is prepared to use reserves in its fund for expenses beyond this month until things are “squared away.” She said the child nutrition department has a healthy fund balance, with two to three months in reserves to operate the program.

“About half the revenue this department receives is reimbursement from the USDA and that equates to about $4 1/2 million,” she said.

BRITNEY TABOR can be reached at 940-566-6876 and via Twitter at @BritneyTabor.