By Ron Leir
Public school kids in one West Hudson community are getting an amenity that hungry guests in many hotels can only wish for … free breakfast.
For Harrison Schools Supt. James Doran, the free meal is more of a necessity than a luxury, given the practical realities facing many of the district’s youngsters.
“We get a sense that a lot of our kids are either not eating breakfast or, if they are eating something, it’s likely to be a buttered roll and soda,” Doran said.
“And if you’re eating sugar, that stuff burns off around 9 or 10 a.m. and that’s when kids start fidgeting and losing attention,” he said. “There’s less disruption and kids are better prepared for the day when they eat a good breakfast.”
The district started its “Universal Breakfast” experiment on Oct. 1 – helped along by a small U.S. Department of Agriculture grant – and Doran says the kids seem to have taken to it pretty well.
The district’s contracted food services caterer, Pomptonian, of Allendale, provides the hot and cold meals.
Some adjustments had to be made to accommodate the approximately 15-minute food distribution and consumption time allotted for the younger children in Hamilton and Lincoln Schools.
As negotiated in a new labor contract, teachers and staff agreed to an expanded school day, starting at 8:20 a.m. (instead of 8:30 a.m.) and ending at 3:05 p.m. (instead of 3 p.m.) so the morning meal can be served without disrupting classes.
Students at Washington Middle School and the high school eat in their school cafeterias. At Hamilton and Lincoln Schools, maintenance staff wheel food on carts to classrooms where teachers and aides dole out meals to students.
Last school year, about 77% of the district’s approximately 2,000 students were deemed eligible for free and/or reduced-price lunches under federal household income guidelines that entitle the district to government reimbursement.
Now, Doran said the district is kicking in some funds to supplement the federal grant to fund the Universal Breakfast program.
The Observer visited Lincoln School last Tuesday to check out the breakfast menu. Kindergarten and third-graders got juice, cereal with milk and a whole grain snack, while second-graders enjoyed juice, a small plate of silver-dollar-sized pancakes or French toast and milk.
Kids don’t have to eat if they don’t want to but, on average, 95 to 100% accept the morning meal, according to Lincoln Principal Joann Dignazio-Botch.
Hot meals are served, typically, once or twice a week at Lincoln, she said.
“The children are very excited about this new undertaking and about the choices they have,” Dignazio-Botch said. “And feedback from parents has been very positive.”
With a decent morning meal, children are “more calm, more attentive” in class, she said.
Doran said that studies have shown that kids who have breakfast in school “increase their math and reading scores as well as improve their speed and memory in cognitive tests. Research also shows that children who eat breakfast at school – closer to class and test-taking time – perform better on standardized tests than those who skip breakfast or eat breakfast at home.”
What’s more, he said, kids who have in-school breakfast “are less likely to be overweight and have improved nutrition – they eat more fruits, drink more milk, and consume a wider variety of foods …”