In Chicago's Schools, Kids Start Day With Breakfast It's part of a district policy that says breakfast now must be served in elementary classrooms during school hours. The goal is to reach hungry kids, and one teacher says it has reduced tardiness. But the plan has set off a firestorm of criticism.

In Chicago's Schools, Kids Start Day With Breakfast

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And there is also a new food policy in Chicago's elementary schools. Schools must now serve breakfast in the classroom during school hours. The goal is to reach hungry kids.

But as Linda Lutton, of member station WBEZ in Chicago reports, it set off a barrage of criticism.

(Soundbite of a ringing bell)

Unidentified Woman #1: Breakfast, please. Girls, breakfast.

LINDA LUTTON: When students at Audubon Elementary stream into school, theyre met just inside the doors by kitchen workers at tables in the hallway.

Unidentified Woman #1: French toast. Grab your milk. Milk...

LUTTON: 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.

Unidentified Child: This is my favorite book, "Encyclopedia Brown." This is my breakfast. And these are my pet mealworms.

LUTTON: The mealworms are for science, not breakfast.

Audubon is one of nearly 300 Chicago schools to begin serving breakfast in class this spring. 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.

Ms. LOURDES VALENZUELA (Teacher, Chicago): So this disrupts a little bit their concentration. But Im trying to teach them that if youre not eating, youre reading. And if youre not reading, youre eating. Although of course, the kids who are eating are not getting the same amount of silent reading time.

LUTTON: 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.

Dr. KEVIN CONCANNON (Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Products, U.S. Department of Agriculture): Fewer children coming to the nurses station with headaches; fewer children having problems concentrating on the work; fewer children falling asleep.

LUTTON: Chicago is the largest district in the country to mandate breakfast in all elementary classrooms. But despite Concannons praise, the school board here has gotten an earful from angry parents.

Unidentified Woman #2: That is a loss of 10 days a year.

Unidentified Woman #3: Just touching egg, milk, or peanut will give my son hives.

Unidentified Woman #4: Its just a ton of waste.

Unidentified Woman #3: Lunchroom workers are trained in safe sanitation; six-year-olds are not.

Unidentified Woman #5: Why is CPS serving junk food to its entire population of elementary school children?

LUTTON: About 200 Chicago schools had already been serving breakfast in class. Complaints only emerged when schools like Audubon, with sizeable middle-class populations, were required to participate. Thats caused some to say opposition is class-and race-based, which critics deny.

Audubons principal, John Price, admits he preferred the schools former breakfast program, which was served in the cafeteria before school. Food allergies are now a major concern. Hes gotten permission to keep feeding 5th through 8th graders under the old rules.

Mr. JOHN PRICE (Principal, Audubon Elementary School): Because my middle schoolers travel from class to class, Ive got to worry about allergy and contamination in basically every classroom. The kid that spills may not have an allergy, but the student who comes in next period or the period after, or the period after might.

Unidentified Women: The biscuits in the white bag; cereal, yogurt in the brown bag.

LUTTON: At Shoesmith Elementary, teacher Leola Stuttley says she initially opposed having her kindergartners eat in class. But after a month, shes a convert.

Ms. LEOLA STUTTLEY (Teacher, Shoesmith Elementary School): I used to have kids that came in and say, Im hungry. So I dont get that interruption now. Were all eating at the same time. Yeah, I would say theyre more focused, cause their bellies are full.

(Soundbite of children)

LUTTON: The day I visit, it takes 29 minutes for the slowest kindergartners to finish. Here, where 90 percent of students are low-income, parents like Noelle Jones feel torn between two things children need.

Ms. NOELLE JONES: In a way its great cause 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 itd be like, just A-okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUTTON: Pressure has been building here to lengthen Chicagos school day, and breakfast may add to that. Meanwhile, Chicagos new schools chief says hes reviewing all the districts wellness programs, including Breakfast in the Classroom.

For NPR News, Im Linda Lutton in Chicago.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Renee Montagne.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

And Im Mary Louise Kelly.

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