In Chicago's Schools, Kids Start Day With Breakfast

fromWBEZ

Students eat breakfast in the classroom at McAuliffe  Elementary on Chicago's Northwest Side. The school implemented the Breakfast in the Classroom program voluntarily three  years ago. i i

Students eat breakfast in the classroom at McAuliffe Elementary on Chicago's Northwest Side. The school implemented the Breakfast in the Classroom program voluntarily three years ago. Linda Lutton /WBEZ hide caption

itoggle caption Linda Lutton /WBEZ
Students eat breakfast in the classroom at McAuliffe  Elementary on Chicago's Northwest Side. The school implemented the Breakfast in the Classroom program voluntarily three  years ago.

Students eat breakfast in the classroom at McAuliffe Elementary on Chicago's Northwest Side. The school implemented the Breakfast in the Classroom program voluntarily three years ago.

Linda Lutton /WBEZ

When students at Audubon Elementary stream into school, they are met just inside the doors by kitchen workers at tables in the hallway.

On the tables is a sea of paper bags: white for hot breakfast; brown for cold. Soon, the second grade smells of cinnamon and warm syrup.

Audubon is one of nearly 300 Chicago schools to begin serving breakfast in class this spring, as part of a district policy that says breakfast now must be served in elementary classrooms during school hours.

Teacher Lourdes Valenzuela still starts the day by having kids read silently. Only now, a quarter of them also munch chocolate Mini-Wheats or scrambled eggs.

"This disrupts a little bit their concentration, but I'm trying to teach them that if you're not eating, you're reading," Valenzuela says. "And if you're not reading, you're eating. Although, of course, the kids who are eating are not getting the same amount of silent reading time."

Kevin Concannon of the U.S. Department of Agriculture says his agency is trying to get breakfast to every kid who needs it. Serving it in class does that. And, he says, studies show that eating breakfast helps with academics.

There are "fewer children coming to the nurse's station with headaches, fewer children having problems concentrating on the work, fewer children falling asleep," he says.

The last schools in the district to implement breakfast in the classroom are coming online Thursday. Chicago is the largest district in the country to mandate breakfast in all elementary classrooms. Until now, Houston was the largest school district to require all of its elementary and middle schools to offer breakfast in the classroom.

Criticism

Despite Concannon's praise, however, the school board has received an earful from angry parents. Complaints range from the loss of school days to students' food allergies and the program's cost.

At the Chicago schools that have recently started serving breakfast in class, early results show that the number of kids eating has gone from 26 percent of the student body to 62 percent. Critics say that doesn't mean kids were hungry before — just that they're eating now.

Before Thursday, about 200 Chicago schools had already been serving breakfast in class. Complaints only emerged when schools like Audubon, with sizable middle-class populations, were required to participate. That has caused some to say opposition is class- and race-based, which critics deny.

Audubon's principal, John Price, acknowledges that he preferred the school's former breakfast program, which was served in the cafeteria before school. Food allergies are a major concern: He has gotten permission to keep feeding fifth- through eighth-graders under the old rules.

"Because my middle schoolers travel from class to class, I've got to worry about allergy and contamination in basically every classroom," Price says. "The kid that spills may not have an allergy, but the student who comes in next period or the period after might."

Kids 'More Focused Now'

At Shoesmith Elementary on Chicago's South Side, school officials say fewer students are tardy since breakfast service started. The school is 90 percent  low-income. i i

At Shoesmith Elementary on Chicago's South Side, school officials say fewer students are tardy since breakfast service started. The school is 90 percent low-income. Linda Lutton /WBEZ hide caption

itoggle caption Linda Lutton /WBEZ
At Shoesmith Elementary on Chicago's South Side, school officials say fewer students are tardy since breakfast service started. The school is 90 percent  low-income.

At Shoesmith Elementary on Chicago's South Side, school officials say fewer students are tardy since breakfast service started. The school is 90 percent low-income.

Linda Lutton /WBEZ

At Shoesmith Elementary, teacher Leola Stuttley says she initially opposed having her kindergartners eat in class, but after a month, she's a convert.

"I used to have kids that came in and said, 'I'm hungry.' So I don't get that interruption now. We're all eating at the same time," Stuttley says. "So, I would say they're more focused now because their bellies are full."

Fewer kids are tardy now, she says.

At Shoesmith, where 90 percent of students are low-income, parents such as Noelle Jones feel torn between two things children need.

"In a way it's great because the kids get to eat breakfast in the classroom, and you could observe them, but it still takes away from the day, so maybe if there were a longer school day it'd be, like, just A-OK," she says.

Pressure has been building to lengthen Chicago's school day, and breakfast may add to that.

Meanwhile, Chicago's new schools chief says he's reviewing all of the district's wellness programs, including Breakfast in the Classroom.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.