Let Them Eat Toast

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At a time when New Yorkers are flooding the city’s food pantries and soup kitchens at record levels, the public schools’ free breakfast program has some of the lowest attendance in the country.

Only 38 percent of city children whose families receive emergency food participate in their school’s breakfast program, compared to 50 percent of such kids nationwide, according to a study released last month by New York-based Food for Survival’s food bank.

“Our participation is at the bottom of the barrel,” says Agnes Molnar, director of the child nutrition unit at the Community Food Resource Center, an advocacy group that successfully pushed for legislation in Albany in 1976 mandating that every public school in the state’s five largest cities offer free breakfast.

Congress created the School Breakfast Program in 1966 to provide a morning meal to kids whose families earn less than 130 percent of the poverty level–in the New York of 2001, that was less than $15,000 a year for a family with two kids.

Last year, the feds chipped in $1.49 billion to fund the program, or $1.15 per free breakfast, and New York State put in another 11 cents a meal. While that’s enough to cover the cost of food, there’s rarely much left over to pay for staffing the cafeterias. Since teachers’ contracts say they are not obligated to volunteer for breakfast duty, and a cafeteria aide makes $9 to $12 an hour, some nutritionists charge that principals use tight budgets as an excuse for not getting eligible kids to the meal. The more kids in the room, the more chaperones they need to keep things calm. “There are principals who would not like to see the breakfast program expand because they would have a real supervision headache,” says Molnar. Principals admit scheduling and budgeting can be a pain, but, says Peter McNally, a former principal at P.S. 229 in Queens and a vice president at the principals’ union, “I really would be surprised if anyone were encouraging people not to come.”

The bottom line is getting the word out. The Board of Ed’s Office of School Food and Nutrition Services posts menus on its web site and produces posters advertising the program, but there are no funds set aside specifically for this outreach, and the city says it has no plans to start a public awareness campaign.

To try to get schools to do more, State Senator Raymond Meier of Utica has proposed a bill to provide $1,000 to $2,500 grants to any district or school that increases enrollment in its breakfast program. The School Breakfast Incentive Program, expected to cost about $1 million, aims to get school administrators to remove barriers like inconvenient bus or class schedules, says Lisa Frank of the Nutrition Consortium of New York State, one of the authors of the bill “We didn’t want to pass a bill we weren’t going to fund,” says Kristin Sinclair, an aide to Meier. The legislation passed the Assembly in June, but died in committee in the Senate when the legislature failed to agree on a budget.