Breakfast After the Bell: Don’t pass up a chance to do the right thing for kids

Last week a critical report card was released, one that inspired hope — but also gave me pause about significant challenges that still lie ahead. 

No — it wasn’t a report card for one my three boys — but instead the Massachusetts School Breakfast Report Card, “Ending Hunger in Our Classrooms,” that outlines how Breakfast After the Bell initiatives are having a positive outcome for kids. 

It speaks directly to the issue of food insecurity and how low-income families in high poverty schools are either supported with breakfast after the bell programs or denied this opportunity. And with 153,000 hungry kids across the Commonwealth currently being denied equitable access to participate in school breakfast, it’s time to sound the alarm.

As a mother of three and founder of Massachusetts Parents United, I speak for thousands of parents who are urging our educators, and legislators to make the well-being of children of our top priority. Children are our Commonwealth’s greatest resource and every child in our state deserves to be healthy, happy and given the chance to achieve.

While we live in the state with the best public school education system in the country, we know that not all of our communities reflect this measure. We have thousands of children across the state – in Lynn, Lowell, and Boston, just to name a few – who struggle to read at grade level. 

Poverty and food insecurity are among the barriers to closing these gaps and improving student success because simply — hungry kids can’t learn. When you feel sick, tired and cranky — waiting hours for food — or when you feel ashamed that you are the “poor kid running to the cafeteria” to get breakfast before the bell rings, kids end up shouldering a cruel burden that we can, and should end now.

Massachusetts has 638 high poverty schools across the state, all of which are mandated to make breakfast available to students. However, only 215 of the 638 schools have voluntarily opted into breakfast after the bell program. Sadly, the majority of high need schools still utilize the traditional before the bell breakfast model, which isn’t working for too many kids. 

There’s a big difference between the two delivery times. Serving breakfast before school starts requires students to arrive early, creates a loud and chaotic cafeteria environment, and does not guarantee that hungry students are able to eat if they arrive on a late bus or do not want to face the stigma of getting breakfast.

Meanwhile, offering breakfast after the bell when everyone is in attendance, ensures each student equal access to a nutritious morning meal with a brief yet reasonable 10 minutes to eat in their classroom without feeling rushed or shamed. Participation rates skyrocket when schools introduce breakfast after the bell. In these schools, 80%+ of children eat breakfast, morning nurse visits go down, and teachers report that learning improves.

I often hear that schools make sure every student has breakfast after the bell on MCAS days, the theory being that if they are fed they will focus better for the test. Imagine the cumulative effect of student learning if they had breakfast after the bell all 180 school days of the year?

Not only is breakfast after the bell what’s best for student learning, it also draws down significant USDA reimbursements. Collectively schools not operating breakfast after the bell are forfeiting $32 million due to low breakfast participation. That’s a lot of money that could be used to improve school nutrition programs for the benefit all students in these districts.

Legislators often grapple with tough decisions — but Breakfast After the Bell is a no-brainer that administrators, parents and communities across the Commonwealth support. This is our call to action. Right now there is a bill in the Senate Ways and Means Committee that would make breakfast after the bell a reality for every high poverty school statewide. We are calling on every legislator in Massachusetts to get this bill passed and give these children the support they need. 

It’s time to get this done.


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