DURHAM — The students were so excited that their breakfast had arrived in their classroom that they raced to the table of food without even forming a line.
“Get in a single-file line,” Ashley Bacon, Eastway Elementary School teacher, politely told her first-grade students.
Eastway is one of 22 schools in the Durham Public Schools district that pilots the Universal Free Breakfast program.
In an effort to battle child hunger, the district says it will expand the program to all 56 schools. The program provides breakfast free to students regardless of their socioeconomic status.
The slogan: Breakfast is on us.
Five out of 170 schools in the Wake County Public School system have the program. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools does not offer it.
As the Eastway students ate their muffins and cereal, some sat and talked to each other. Some read their books.
In Therese Wells’ kindergarten class, the students ate while reading books as calm music played in the background.
“It settles them down for class, where before they would be hyper,” Wells said. “So many children don’t have food so they can’t eat breakfast. It’s real hard for them to start class without anything in their stomachs.”
Durham Public Schools already offered breakfast, but only one in three students participated.
Part of the reason is stigma: a perception that if you eat breakfast at school you are poor, said Jim Keaton, DPS executive director of child nutrition. The Universal Free Breakfast program puts every child on the same playing field, he said.
“This is a very passionate thing for me,” Keaton said. “I believe that children who get breakfast study better, they are more focused, they have less disciplinary problems and their test results are higher. And that’s proven nationwide.
“I think it’s important that we support the students of Durham in any way that we can.”
The district piloted the free breakfast program at 22 schools this year to see if it was financially feasible. For every student that qualifies for a free breakfast, the district was reimbursed $1.89 from the federal program. Through March 31, nearly 65,000 more breakfasts were eaten than by the same time last year. Because more qualified students were participating, the district received more money, enabling it to also serve free meals to students above the income guidelines.
The increase in reimbursement has exceeded expenses by $7,000 this year, prompting the district to expand the program to all schools.
It’s too soon to see if free breakfast correlates with higher test scores, but Keaton said he anticipates that it will.
Kelly Brownell, professor of public policy and dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke, researches food and nutrition policy. He too expects performance to rise.
“It’s been known for many years that children that are improperly nourished have trouble in schools, which affects the vitalities of the schools and the communities they’re in,” Brownell said.
“Your body just doesn’t do well when it’s malnourished,” he explained. “Essentially every organ in the body is affected by poor nutrition, including the brain. Your energy is affected and your attention.”
School board members have long supported the breakfast program, hoping that it will help help break the link between poverty and low test scores.
“It increases the likeliness that all of our children will come to school well-prepared,” school board Chairwoman Heidi Carter said. “It improves cognitive skills. And the fact that it’s universal would remove any stigma associated with it.”
Alexander: 919-932-2008; Twitter: @jonmalexander1