WASHINGTON – Breakfasts in Maryland schools just aren’t going like hotcakes.
While Maryland is one of the best states in the nation when it comes to making breakfast available to low-income students, it is not so good at getting students to actually take advantage of the morning meals, according to a report released Wednesday.
Officials said that students may not be taking advantage of the breakfast programs because they simply do not have enough time in the morning and because of the stigma associated with the meals, which are aimed at helping low-income children.
“It’s frustrating because we have a large number of schools offering it and a low number of students are taking advantage. It’s perceived as a program for low-income children when in fact it isn’t,” said Shelly Terry, state director of child nutrition. “If a school offers it, come eat breakfast.”
Maryland ranked fourth in the nation for the number of schools that offer free or reduced-price breakfast, according to the Food Research and Action Center’s “School Breakfast Scorecard 2000.” But the report also ranked Maryland 22nd in the nation in the number of students who actually eat those meals.
FARC President James Weill said schools need to aggressively promote the fact that school breakfast is for everyone, not just low-income students, so “nobody knows who is poor and who isn’t.”
Maryland Department of Education officials said the state has tried many strategies to increase student participation, such as airing public service announcements on television and celebrating School Breakfast Week with contests.
But since the 1998/99 school year, the number of students receiving reduced-price or free breakfast only increased by 0.6 percent in Maryland, while the number of state schools participating in the national School Breakfast Program grew by 8.7 percent.
The state now requires that the breakfast program be offered in all elementary schools where at least 15 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-priced meals.
Terry said lack of time, in addition to the stigma associated with the meals program, is a major factor keeping students from getting breakfast.
“They come to school and they’ve got books. So they have to go somewhere to get rid of them unless they take them to the cafeteria….Then the bell rings,” Terry said.
In 1998, Terry said, the state began a pilot program that brought breakfast directly to classrooms for all students to eat. The success of the Maryland Meals for Achievement program in six schools encouraged state officials to extend it to 49 schools. Terry said a study showed that three times more students eat breakfast when it is in classrooms rather than in cafeterias.
“This says to us they have been hungry all along,” Terry said. “There’s just something about going to the cafeteria.”
Karen Haghighi, director of food nutrition and services for Prince George’s County schools, said five schools in her county participate in the classroom-breakfast program. None of those schools has fewer than 78 percent of its students eating breakfast at school, she said.
Some schools that do not have in-classroom breakfasts are able to offer “universal” free breakfast for students. Terry said only schools with 80 percent of their students on a reduced-price or free breakfast plan are eligible, and most of those schools are in Baltimore City. She said the state has only seen a 5 percent increase in student participation in these schools.
“Just making it universal didn’t increase that much,” Terry said. She said “bringing breakfast to classrooms makes the biggest difference of all.”
At Baltimore City’s Ashburton Elementary/Middle School, where students have to go to the cafeteria for breakfast, participation in the meals program begins to drop as students move to middle school because they are “more reluctant to bring back applications,” said principal Francis Ellington.
“It’s funny because people think some people always want a handout,” Ellington said. “But we see the opposite.”