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CMS Dishing Up Big Bucks For Free Breakfasts

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The old adage advises that there’s no such thing as a free lunch (or breakfast, in this case), but don’t try telling that to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. Not content with the district’s free- and reduced-price meal program, the school board this month approved a new Universal Breakfast initiative that next school year will offer every student a free daily breakfast.

The tab for the free breakfasts? A staggering $18.6 million for the first year, although you’d never know it from listening to the school board. During a lengthy discussion about the Universal Breakfast program, not a single board member asked how much the “free” meals would cost. And certainly no CMS staffer offered up the meals’ price tag for public consumption.

Indeed, CMS Executive Director of Child Nutrition Cynthia Hobbs assured board members that the new program “won’t cost the district a dime,” while board member Rhonda Lennon stressed that none of the program’s cost would slice into the district’s operating budget. It wasn’t until late in the discussion when board member Tom Tate finally noted that, “The cost, though, does come from us, right? Because it’s taxpayer money.”

Hobbs conceded that was accurate, but said that it’s largely federal money, with some state funding, shouldering the cost of Universal Breakfast.

And obviously federal money isn’t, you know, real money; so everybody wins. Right?

In fact, if CMS cooks the breakfast books right, the district could actually end up making money by serving free breakfasts for everyone – a notion that seemingly perplexed board member Joyce Waddell, who asked how CMS could give away more of something for free, but still make money in return?

The answer, in a bagel bite sound bite, is taxpayer subsidy.

“The majority of our schools get a reimbursement rate for every free- and reduced [meal] that they serve of $1.85,” Hobbs explained. “Based on this year’s cost, a breakfast cost us $1.61 to produce; so for every breakfast we’ve served this year to a free- and reduced [meal] child, there’s been a surplus of 24-cents; plus we get 27-cents from the government for every paying child that we serve.

“We feel like we will serve so many more free- and reduced students once this stigma of a free breakfast is removed,” Hobbs said, “that the surplus that we get from those free- and reduced meals will pay for the paying children.”

So, free breakfasts! For everyone! Regardless of a student’s family income, every student is eligible for the free breakfasts.

“We’ve got to remove that stigma of breakfast being for poor children, because there are free- and reduced children out there who are not taking advantage of the free meal they could get because they don’t want to be labeled,” Hobbs said. “Having a Universal Breakfast takes that label away from the child.”

At a cost just shy of $19-million a year, no less.

The Universal Breakfast will also reach students who don’t qualify for free- or reduced-price meals, but for some other reason might show up at school hungry.

“A hungry child is not necessarily a child from poverty or little means,” Lennon said. “A hungry child could come from a million-dollar home on the lake whose mom didn’t have time to fix breakfast today, and they can’t focus the rest of the day because they’re hungry.”

So there’s that.

District officials also contend that research presented by Share Our Strength/No Kid Hungry, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that’s pushing the Universal Breakfast model nationally, shows that eating a healthy breakfast leads to improved school attendance, better behavior, and higher math scores.

“We know many of our students, unfortunately, come to school hungry,” said Superintendent Heath Morrison. “And so when we put great leaders in front of them, put great teachers in front of them, it still doesn’t help them stay focused on the learning environment when they’re hungry.”

Currently about 54 percent of CMS students receive some degree of meal benefit; 78 percent of CMS students (64,500) who qualify for meal benefits eat a free- or reduced-price lunch, but only 34 percent (27,600) eat a free- or reduced-price breakfast, according to Hobbs. The district’s breakfast meal participation rate, overall, is about 22 percent, she said.

The Universal Breakfast program, Hobbs said, is projected to increase that participation rate to upwards of 48 percent, and a pilot program conducted in May at four schools reflects that ambition.

At Reid Park and Westerly Hills, two high poverty schools that serve over 60 percent of students a breakfast, participation increased by 2 percent. Oaklawn, a late-bell school with 75 percent economically disadvantaged students, saw participation in the breakfast program increase by 5 percent. The largest increase, though, came at Elon Park, which has less than 8 percent economically disadvantaged students. Breakfast participation rate at Elon increased 12 percent, with the biggest jump coming from non-economically disadvantaged students. The school, overall, had been feeding breakfast for 40 students a day; under the Universal model that increased to 160, while the number of students eligible for free- or reduced-price meals eating breakfast increased from 12 to 20.

The district-wide free breakfast menus planned to launch next school year range from sausage (turkey, ‘natch), chicken and steak biscuits and whole-wheat pizza bagels to pancake and sausage on a stick; English muffins with eggs and cheese; and sausage pancake wraps. Options also will include fruit, yogurt, and assorted cereal.

Hobbs said that a survey of students conducted by the district indicated that a driving reason more students didn’t eat a CMS breakfast was the perception that “only poor children ate breakfast at school.”

“What we really want to accomplish is to get the economically disadvantaged children taking advantage of breakfast,” Hobbs said.

“We know there are still a lot of students who get a good breakfast at home and we don’t expect that they’re also going to come to school to get a free breakfast. They’re still going to eat at home,” Hobbs said. “But we want to reach those who for some reason can’t get food, or maybe they just roll out of bed just in time to catch the bus and don’t have time to eat before they get to school; we would like to make sure that they have some food before they start studying.

“If we truly mean that we want to serve every child, every day, for a better tomorrow,” Hobbs said, “it starts with breakfast.”

Along with a price tag of nearly $19 million for the free wholegrain hotcakes and turkey sausage wraps.

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