IN DEPTH: Region's schools weigh cost of universal free breakfast program

IN DEPTH: Region's schools weigh cost of universal free breakfast program

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District Administrator Tom Benson said the breakfast program at the School District of Reedsburg evolved over the years.

Based on the numbers of students on free and reduced lunch and consulting with the Department of Public Instruction, the school district decided to implement a universal free breakfast program at the elementary school level, Benson said. When the district was close to breaking even in the program at the elementary school level, the school board expanded the program to Webb Middle School in early 2018.

When the universal free breakfast program started at Webb Middle School last year, participants jumped from 150 to 350 students, said Jennifer Jennings, food service director.

Based on the success at the middle school, a trial run of the universal free breakfast program was completed at the high school during National School Breakfast Recognition Week March 4-8. Participation increased at the high school by 80 percent. At its April board meeting, the Reedsburg Board of Education unanimously approved expanding the program at the high school, making the program available to all students district wide.

While officials say there are benefits to the program, school districts have to look at financial estimates and assess participation rates to determine if it’s the right model to take on. Gov. Tony Evers is proposing additional state funding in his 2019-2021 budget for the breakfast program in hopes of addressing student hunger.

Growing interest

Food Service Director for the Sauk Prairie School District Lisa Krayer said it was a “pretty cool” the School District of Reedsburg expanded the universal free breakfast program because of research showing positive statistics on those eating breakfast before school. Krayer said the Sauk Prairie school district offers free breakfast for students on free and reduced lunch. Other students pay full price — $1.70 for an elementary school meal and $1.85 for middle and high school students.

She said some students may skip breakfast and the universal free program is an “out of the box approach” encouraging them to sit down and eat a meal before their first class.

“Any way we can get more students to eat breakfast that maybe weren’t having it before is a creative approach to fueling those bodies and minds,” Krayer said.

Eight public schools in Juneau County and six in Sauk County offer universal free breakfast, according to statistics provided by the Department of Public Instruction.

University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor for School of Human Ecology Judi Bartfield said some districts choose a universal free breakfast model to reduce stigma of those on free and reduced lunch. The program also increases participation in the breakfast program and streamlines administrative burden with less paperwork if the program is offered through the community eligibility provision, she said. Research she recently conducted in schools around Wisconsin shows offering school breakfast free to all students in elementary schools is associated with modest improvements in both attendance and standardized test scores.

Mauston’s Grayside Elementary School Principal Bobbi Steele said the district considered the program to give students another opportunity to eat breakfast and “build social relationships.” Steele said she’s seen a reduction in students attending the nurse’s office since Mauston began offering its universal free breakfast in the classroom in August 2017. The program began for the school district as a pilot program at Grayside Elementary School. Based on its success at Grayside, the program expanded in May 2018 to include all Mauston elementary schools.

She said offering the program district wide hasn’t been discussed.

“It’s not something that’s come up yet,” Steele said.

Department of Public Instruction School Nutrition Consultant Debra Wollin said she is seeing some schools in the Sauk and Juneau County area attempting to move in the direction of implementing a universal free breakfast program. Wisconsin Dells School District Food Service Director Greg Heller said he’d like to start a universal free breakfast program at the school district, but there are some “road blocks” bringing the model to the district. Heller said he’s crunched different numbers around with the business office and administration to see if the model could work. The problem is the district lacks space to serve students, especially at Spring Hill Middle and Elementary School, he said.

“As we increase participation, I really don’t know where they would sit to eat,” Heller said.

He said the district will have additional space when the new high school, as a part of the districts $33.6 million referendum, is complete. He said if the school district were to consider a universal breakfast program, it would start one building and gradually increase over time.

Finding time

Wollin said a universal free breakfast program increases participation because it reduces the stigma associated with those students.

“It doesn’t matter if you are from a needy household or not. Children need to eat and they need to have balanced nutritious meals and they can get that in the school breakfast program where they may not get that at home,” Wollin said. “They may have a Mountain Dew and a cupcake or a bag of chips, where at school they are actually going to get whole grains and fruit and balanced nutrition.”

Finding time and opportunities to increase participation in the program is another aspect school districts consider. Some will offer the meals before school in a cafeteria setting while other use classrooms or grab and go. The opportunity for a grab and go breakfast increases participation by about 50% and breakfast after the bell is also a popular choice for districts, Wollin said.

“We introduce them to all of these different breakfast models and it’s the district decision whether they are going to be in support of it or not,” she said.

While it isn’t a universal free breakfast program, Heller said breakfast in the classroom is offered at Neenah Creek Elementary School. Students get their own breakfast and take it back to their classroom to eat and the program works well, he said. The district also offers a snack break and has a food pantry at the high school available where students can grab something to eat.

Crunching numbers

Benson said school districts thinking about implementing a universal free breakfast program need to look at “simple things” and “daily monitoring and adjusting” to the program’s needs, like making sure supplies are on hand to meet demand and estimating how many students will participate in the program. Food and labor costs are also considered. Jennings said there wasn’t a substantial impact on labor or food costs to the district since the program expanded district wide.

The difference between a district making a possible profit, loss and breaking even with the universal free breakfast program is the number of students participating in the program. This is because of the amount of federal funding reimbursed to schools for each breakfast served. Reedsburg School District Business Manager Pat Ruddy said the district had close to $5,000 in profit for food service after running a deficit for four straight years. That money is reinvested back into the food service program.

Current federal funding for the 2018-19 school year from the United States Department of Agriculture is .31 cents per breakfast for districts at severe need and non-severe need. Reimbursement rates for students at reduced prices are $1.49 for non-severe need and $1.84 for severe need. Students at free payment status is $1.79 for non-severe districts and $2.14 for severe districts. State aid is .08 cents per breakfast.

A school is eligible for severe need reimbursement if 40% or more of the student lunches served at the school in the second preceding school year were served at free or a reduced price, according to the Department of Instruction website.

Wollin said increased participation means school districts could receive up to 35 cents more in federal reimbursement from the USDA for each meal served.

“Because you are receiving that additional federal reimbursement, it helps you break even overall to be able to offer universal free breakfast to everybody, even the paid students,” she said.

An information sheet on universal free breakfast program from University of Wisconsin-Extension said universal free breakfast works well for school districts with greater than 70% of students eligible for free and reduced meal prices. However, schools with fewer eligible students have operated the program successfully. Statistics from the Department of Public Instruction show in October 2017 free and reduced participation rates for Reedsburg School District at 81%, Mauston School District at 55%, Sauk Prairie at 29% and Wisconsin Dells at 53%.

Participation and state funding

Participation of breakfast in the state is one of the lowest in the nation at 83%, ranking Wisconsin 50 out of 50 states and the District of Columbia, behind New Jersey. Wollin said The Department of Public Instruction will host a participation workshop for all schools June 19 at Chula Vista in the Wisconsin Dells and is open to all schools in the state to learn how to increase participation in the breakfast program.

Benson said the school district didn’t look at the national participation levels, instead focusing on the students within its own buildings.

“We know the little bit of research we have done is probably more common sense than anything else that if any of us, children and adults, if we have a little breakfast in our belly to start the day, we are probably likely to be more alert, more attentive to whatever work is in front of us.” Benson said.

Gov. Tony Evers 2019-2020 proposed budget increases the amount of state aid to schools participating in the school breakfast program to .15 cents a breakfast, a .07 cent increase. The amount provides an additional $5.6 million over the two year budget to “address student hunger.”

Wollin said increased funding could help provide more options and funding for breakfast programs, like the grab and go program. She said the grab and go program provides the opportunity for students to receive a convenient meal but “tends to be more expensive because it’s pre-packaged.”

She said additional funding could make it more financially feasible for school districts to adopt a universal free breakfast program.

Follow Erica Dynes on Twitter @EDynes_CapNews or contact her at 608-393-5346.

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