Free breakfast is a hit

FAIRMONT – Every weekday at 8:15 a.m., students at Fairmont Elementary are just sitting down to breakfast.

They have 30 minutes to complete their meal, which consists of milk, juice and an alternating main portion – such as crackers – before settling in for six more hours of study.

Breakfast has been served at the school for years, but has had relatively low participation. To increase it, the meal is being served in the classrooms and to every student.

School administrators believe feeding students breakfast every day gets them ready to make the most of their class time, reduces complaints of upset stomachs, and keeps them from acting out.

But there is a financial benefit as well, and it not because parents are being charged for these meals.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, preparing and serving nearly the entire student body not only doesn’t cost the district anything, it actually increases its bottom line.

The federal government reimburses the school district for meals served to students meeting specific income guidelines – a program known as free and reduced lunch. Those students are eligible to eat breakfasts for free at school, for which the district is reimbursed at above the cost of preparing and purchasing the food.

With a free and reduced lunch rate nearing 50 percent of the students at the elementary school, it was determined that feeding every student would generate enough to cover the costs, plus an additional $30,000 to $40,000 for the food service program, depending on how many students actually participate.

With 900 students in the school, the program debuted with participation in the mid-700 range, but three weeks into the school year more students are involved.

“We have almost 800 kids eating breakfast here every day,” said assistant principal Michelle Rosen.

Each teacher is using the 30-minute time slot in whatever way is best for his or her classroom.

Third-grade teacher Joice Forster asks her students to work on a morning assignment while they eat. Across the hall in Betty Eagan’s fourth-grade classroom, students take turns presenting a simulated newscast, including current events, sports and weather information.

Younger students are not sitting idle during their meal time either.

Kindergarten teacher Kari Duehlmeyer has her students practicing their counting and sharing with other students.

Duehlmeyer admitted she had some reservations about how the program would look at first, but feels it is running quite smoothly.

Rosen said Duehlmeyer was not the only teacher who had concerns about how chaotic breakfast time could be, but most are finding the experience a good one for students.

Fourth-grade teacher Heidi Luhmann teaches a looped class, meaning she is teaching the same students this year as last year, when she taught them third grade.

She has seen a difference in students when they have breakfast.

“Since I loop with my class, I know most of my students pretty well,” she said. “Last year, I had a few students that were always complaining of not feeling well, especially in the morning, and asking to go to the office. This year, those students have not asked once. I think that possibly their problem was that they were having hunger pains last year.”

Students don’t have to take the breakfast if they are not hungry; if they decide not to eat they are encouraged to save the food for a snack later in the day or after school.

In one classroom, a group of three students all had different experiences with the breakfast. One said he didn’t take it at all because he already ate at home. Another said he eats breakfast at home and at school. A third said she has never eaten breakfast at home because she is responsible for getting herself off to school and doesn’t have time in the morning.

The non-instructional time at the beginning of the day provides the district with time to institute another program. Dean Alex Schmidt has spearheaded a mentoring program with specialists – music, art, and physical education teachers.

Since these teachers don’t have classrooms to monitor during the breakfast “zero” hour, they have been assigned grade levels in which to begin mentoring.

The specialists are responsible for pulling out small groups of students during the breakfast time to eat with in a more formal setting.

Schmidt said each teacher does it a little differently, but they may take the group of six or eight students to the cafeteria or classroom every day for a week, sit down together for breakfast, and just talk and learn soft skills, like manners and having a conversation with an adult.

“It is a way for [the students] to meet with a caring adult,” Schmidt said.

The students aren’t targeted for the mentoring time, and every student should have a chance to be involved in the smaller group.

“From the specialists point of view it is great,” Schmidt said. “They get to sit down and talk with the kids, which they don’t always get a chance to do.”

Schmidt envisions the mentoring groups to be a time for students to begin helping each other, the fifth-grade group could use the time to go help a kindergarten class, for example.

Rosen said giving students the responsibility during the breakfast time is crucial.

About 15 years ago, Rosen said the district tried serving breakfasts to students in the classroom and it was a difficult process. It only lasted one year before the meals were moved to the cafeteria.

Students at that time weren’t expected to clean up after themselves, and the responsibility went to the teacher.

This time around, students are expected to clean up their spaces and take care of the garbage.

The district’s parent teacher group, Parents and Educators Teaming Together, purchased special cleaning cloths for all the classrooms, so students can take care of spills without chemicals.

Schmidt says it is too early to tell if the breakfast program will lower the number of referrals teacher make to the office, but noted they have had few problems between students in the morning. The nurse’s office has seen fewer students as well.

Rosen said the number of students complaining of stomach troubles has decreased from previous years.