PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER: Study in Philly finds a wide range of school-breakfast participation

January 21, 2013

By Alfred Lubrano, Inquirer Staff Writer

Although school breakfast is universally considered to be vital for health and learning, there is a wide disparity in the number of students who get served these meals in Philadelphia schools.

At Moffet Elementary School in Kensington, for example, 92 percent of the students eat breakfast, the highest percentage in Philadelphia. But at Pastorius Elementary School in Germantown, just 12 percent of students eat breakfast, the lowest number in the city.

The findings are part of an analysis released to The Inquirer last week by Public Citizens for Children and Youth, a Philadelphia children's advocacy group.

Principals are generally considered to be the main factor in the success or failure of breakfast service, especially in elementary school. If the principal makes the effort, experts say, more kids eat.

"These are extraordinary differences in the numbers of kids eating breakfast," said Jonathan Stein, a lawyer with Community Legal Services, long involved in school-meal issues. "It's because of the principals."

Carey Morgan, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, agreed.

"It goes directly to the priorities of the person running the school," she said.

Kathy Fisher, director of family economic security at Public Citizens, urged principals at underperforming schools to study the more successful schools.

"To just say, 'Oh, well, the kids don't want to participate,' is not an acceptable answer to us," Fisher said.

None of the principals from schools with low breakfast participation - including Pastorius - returned phone calls.

"School breakfast has become a priority" for School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., said Wayne Grasela, senior vice president of food services for the school district. "There's a lot of support. We think we'll see growth in the next year."

Any Philadelphia public school student who wants breakfast can have it, regardless of income.

As for lunch, because so many students are low-income, nearly four of five qualify for free or reduced-price meals in the city.

Overall, about 52 percent of elementary-school students eat breakfast, according to Public Citizens. It's 42 percent for middle-school students and 28 percent for high schoolers.

Generally, older students skip school breakfast, studies have found, many times because they normally don't eat breakfast anyway or because they get food elsewhere.

The schools that do best with breakfast have principals willing to serve the meal during the first class of the day, Grasela said.

"I assure you that if they serve food in the classroom, the participation numbers go up," Grasela said. "That would be the number-one factor."

In many schools, principals offer breakfast in cafeterias before school begins. Others offer grab-and-go options in the halls.

Throughout the country, schools that serve breakfast during the first class of the day have higher participation by students, research shows.

The Public Citizens study comes at the same time a national report by the Washington-based Food Research and Action Center shows that for the last two years, breakfast participation in all Philadelphia schools remained the same. The city ranked 20th out of 57 U.S. school districts.

The center measures school-breakfast participation by comparing the number of low-income children receiving breakfast with the number of such children receiving lunch.

In Philadelphia during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years, 59.5 percent of students eating free or reduced-priced lunch ate school breakfast.

That's a problem for Morgan, of the antihunger coalition. "The number of kids not getting breakfast is still pretty high," she said. "And to have the same percentage two years in a row tells me we have a long way to go to increase participation."

Principal Kelli Rosado of Hartranft Elementary School, which had the second-highest breakfast participation rate at 91 percent, said there was "no magic" to her success at the North Philadelphia school.

"But breakfast is a priority here," she said, explaining that she serves the meal during the first class of the day. "My staff realizes how kids being fed is critical to focusing children's attention."

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