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Schools Defend Decision Against Offering Breakfast

THE HUNGER WARS. Fighting for Food in Southern California. First of a series


Although school breakfast programs could help many children, there are many reasons why schools do not offer a morning meal.

Logistic barriers can be a nightmare, said Wanda Grant, food services director for El Monte City School District. Her district, which serves breakfast at its 18 schools, had to shuffle bus schedules, buy trucks to haul more food supplies and deal with water heaters that could not handle bigger dishwashing loads. Food service directors, principals and custodians usually do not jump at the chance to do more work for the same pay.

However, schools that want to offer breakfast find a way. When the Riverside Unified School District could not juggle bus schedules, it offered breakfast pizza and pancakes on the school bus.

Often, philosophical objections are the bigger obstacle. Many people believe parents, not taxpayers, should provide something as basic as breakfast for their children. If schools take on more duties--offering sex and drug education, for example--won't that encourage parents to abdicate more responsibilities?

In a case that attracted widespread attention, the Meriden, Conn., school board, arguing that children should eat at home with their families, repeatedly voted down school breakfast programs from 1990 to 1993--flouting a 1992 school breakfast state mandate until they were sued by the state attorney general.

A survey this year by the California Department of Education, which allocated only a third of the $3 million in breakfast start-up grants last year because of a dearth of applicants, found that many principals and superintendents voiced philosophical objections to breakfast programs. "The parents have some responsibility for these kids. It's not the schools' job to be all things to all people," one principal wrote.

Since the 1980s, Shyrl L. Dougherty, the nutrition services director for Montebello Unified, has prodded four of 26 schools balking at serving breakfast. In one school, 98% of the children would qualify for free or reduced-cost morning meals.

"How much are we supposed to do for families?" one principal protested to Dougherty.

Only about a tenth of students in Orange County's second-largest district, Garden Grove Unified, get free or reduced-price breakfasts, although half qualify.

"What's next? Are we going to provide housing for these people too?" one principal asked the district's food services director, Karen Papilli.

In the West Covina Unified School District, many administrators and teachers believe the decision to not offer breakfast is rooted in conservative attitudes. The school board begins its meetings with Christian prayer.

"We have a conservative school board. They are very concerned about the role of the school," said Mary J. Herbener, the district's child welfare and attendance supervisor. Merced Elementary Principal Janet Swanson said: "Breakfast is a hot potato. It's a political issue."

Edgewood Middle School Assistant Principal Amelia Esposito said she has pushed for breakfast for three years. "This board is stuck in the '60s. Lunch is OK, but breakfast is controversial."

Anthony Reymann, who calls himself the board's lone liberal, sizes up his colleagues' reaction to a breakfast program: "They will say: 'Ultimately God put parents on this earth to take care of their children. By God, that is what they should be doing.' "

The board's conservative president, Mike Spence, said: "The government is trying to usurp the responsibilities of the parent. There is a trend to take over aspects of what the family does."

"Schools need to educate," said Susan Langley, the West Covina School District Council-PTA president. She says parents should turn elsewhere for food assistance. "We are really big on self-help."

Some teachers are skeptical as well. One told Esposito: "If they (parents) weren't on drugs, their kids wouldn't be hungry."

Since bringing in breakfast last year at Santa Ana's Pio Pico Elementary School, the droves of hungry children who arrived at Principal Judy Magsaysay's office sick with hunger in the morning have disappeared. Teachers are astounded at the difference in the classroom: 10 to 11:30 a.m., once dead time, has become a fertile learning period.

Magsaysay said she knows the difference the meals make when she watches students return from monthlong vacations visibly thinner. Twenty-five children line up against the cafeteria's outer wall by 6:45 a.m. for breakfast. Sometimes, the cafeteria lady runs late. When she finally swings open the door, the children clap and cheer.

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