The Double Bind of Free School Breakfast
Getting up before 8:00 a.m. wasn’t something that came easily for my mom, so many mornings between kindergarten and the third grade, my older brother and woke to our own alarms, dressed ourselves, and walked ourselves to school. It wasn’t a big deal; our town in Oregon was small and safe and the walk was short. On winter mornings, the sun had just begun to come up as we arrived at school a good 30 minutes before the first bell for breakfast.
Our school had a relatively high poverty rate, which meant we certainly weren’t the only kids with the scarlet mark of a free or reduced-price lunch ticket (the yellowish paper sleeve literally said “FREE LUNCH” on it). Still, breakfast at school was a somewhat bleak affair; the cafeteria was much emptier than at lunch time and custodial staff bustled around to prepare for the day. Given our choice of a pair of commercial-grade sausage links, a bready pancake with syrup that was more corn than maple, or cold cereal, we’d often pick the most appealing of choices: A single doughnut. Specifically, a maple bar, which the adults around us had no problem considering a healthy breakfast. Neither did we, and neither, it seems, did millions of kids at schools around the country.
For more than 40 years, USDA's School Breakfasts Program has provided assistance to low-income families by providing students an extra meal before the beginning of class. The program is grounded in copious research that links a full stomach to scholastic aptitude and is considered an investment in the future, but it comes with the immediate added benefit of helping the estimated one in five children in the United States who lives in a food-insecure household get at least two meals each day.
Unfortunately, the program leaves much to be desired. There are some issues with the nutritional requirements—remember the scandal around pizza as a vegetable? It’s a bit like that—which are vague enough that offerings may include sugary treats like my doughnuts or, like ChalkBeat’s Amy Schimke explained in 2014, the “Frudel,” a pastry served in Denver Public Schools.
“The Frudels have 11 grams of sugar and are served warm inside blue plastic wrappers emblazoned with a smiling Pillsbury Dough Boy,” she wrote. “Parents describe how some of the children in the Pre-K classroom jump up and down with excitement on Frudel day, gobbling up school breakfast even after parents take pains to serve a full breakfast at home.”
Cost is, of course, a major factor; kids’ palates are another. Whereas children from wealthier households are often raised with a taste for healthy foods, low-income parents, who are at higher risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes, don’t have the luxury of trying broccoli or buckwheat pancakes until their picky eaters grow to like them. Kids who eat breakfast at school are also often—though of course not always—kids who are more comfortable with and eager to try a doughnut than a spinach frittata. In this way, when school breakfasts cater to a demand for unhealthy foods, they perpetuate cycles of obesity in low-income kids, and later, adults.
There’s also the matter of when breakfast is available. Typically served before the school day begins, school breakfasts may be out of reach for families who rely on the school bus. Numerous states have begun lobbying for and passing breakfast after the bell programs to reduce the hardship on families and students, but serving breakfast in the classroom comes with its own issues.
“When breakfast is served in the cafeteria, menu planners enjoy significantly more flexibility in terms of the serving methods and varieties of foods that are available to them,” according to the USDA. “Hot menu items can easily be served alongside simpler items like cereals and fruits, and the use of a serving line allows students to choose from a variety of menu items rather than simply taking a prepackaged meal.”
Breakfast served in the classroom often forces the school’s meal staff to rely on convenience foods, further highlighting the issue of unhealthy choices—like, say, a Frudel. And of course, there’s the stigma; when you're early to class—possibly even before the teacher has unlocked the room—because you were there to eat breakfast, everyone knows you're poor. Breakfast after the bell makes it easier to disguise who needs breakfast and who’s just snapping up a maple bar because it’s there—but for teachers who are charged with keeping doughnuts out of the hands of kids whose parents already fed them at home, class lines are clearly drawn.
Sitting in our hand-me-downs, relying on a meal from a stranger (no matter how delicious that “meal” was, or how kind the lunch lady), it was hard not to notice the difference between us and the kids whose parents were up, bright and early, frying eggs and cutting fruit before heading out to their white-collar jobs. You never saw kids eating breakfast alone at school on TV; you saw families, sharing a bowl of cereal that also somehow came with other components as part of a complete breakfast. Because, despite the best efforts of educators and the USDA—to normalize eating breakfast at school, to ensure that kids are getting what they need, and to generally make an uncomfortable situation bearable—it’s not just the shame of eating breakfast at school; it’s that you’re doing it at all, because there is no other way for you to do it.
For us, breakfast at school wasn’t just a meal that resembled dessert more than dinner—it was a meal that was there because there might not be a meal otherwise, and even maple icing can’t quite make that easier to swallow.