In Ventura County, only 15% of children eligible for free or reduced-price school breakfasts get to eat them, according to the California Department of Education.
The Oxnard Elementary School District--one of the county's largest, serving some of its poorest communities--is trying to phase in breakfast at the neediest of its 15 elementary schools within a year. Two years ago, officials started serving breakfast at Juanita Elementary School in the heart of Oxnard's poorest neighborhood, La Colonia. There was a notable jump in student classroom performance, says Principal Tony Zubia, who says some officials credit the breakfasts with boosting CLAS test scores at the school, now renamed Cesar E. Chavez School.
"The kids were more attentive; we didn't have as many kids coming in to me about stubborn problems, or feeling lightheaded because they hadn't eaten," Zubia said. Within a month, breakfast will be served at two more elementary schools in the 14,000-student district.
The Hueneme School District also is phasing in breakfast programs at five needy elementary schools in Port Hueneme and south Oxnard, says Associate Supt. Jeff Baarstad, who oversees 11 schools and 7,860 students. Three elementary schools already serve breakfast. The district has no plans, however, to serve breakfast at two needy junior high schools--Blackstock Elementary and Green Elementary. Younger students may not be able to feed themselves if left to their own devices, but junior-high students can look after themselves, Baarstad says.
"We feel in the school district that our core purpose as an organization is academic achievement," Baarstad said.
No breakfast program exists in the Fillmore Unified School District, where more than half the 3,420 students at its five schools are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. The district believes the logistics of shifting bus schedules, juggling staff schedules and paying for extra custodial and cafeteria staff time makes it too difficult, says Barbara Spieler, the district's business manager.
This year, the application papers for a special state grant that helps schools finance breakfast start-ups arrived too close to the Dec. 1 filing deadline, Spieler says. Next year, they'll probably look into it, she says.
Meanwhile, some Fillmore teachers share their own food with hungry students, or send them to the cafeteria for a free carton of milk to hold them over until lunch, one teacher says.
And Fillmore district nurse Martha Romero continues to lobby hard for a breakfast program.
Romero sees some poor families who cut out breakfasts to save food money for the evening meal. Many parents just do not push their children to eat in the morning because they leave early for work or simply do not care, she says. Sometimes, hungry children come to see her.
"They come to the nurse's office complaining of headaches or stomachaches," she said. "I ask them, 'Did you eat your breakfast?' and they say, 'No.'
"How can they focus? How can they concentrate? How can they remember?" she asks.