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L.A. Unified teachers criticize breakfast program

Instructors say feeding students in class cuts down on instructional time and causes messy classrooms, but administrators hail it as boosting attendance and making students more focused.

April 18, 2013|By Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times
  • L.A. Unified schools Supt. John Deasy chats with Luisa Garcia, 8, as they share breakfast. More than half the teachers in a survey disliked the program but said they would support it if sanitation and time issues were resolved.
L.A. Unified schools Supt. John Deasy chats with Luisa Garcia, 8, as they… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)

L.A. Unified teachers and administrators this week expressed wildly differing views of a classroom breakfast program intended to ensure that students don't start the day hungry.

United Teachers Los Angeles gave the program a "failing grade" Monday as it released results from an online survey that said the effort had increased pests, created messes and cut down on instructional time.

But David Binkle, the district's food services director, on Tuesday said that the program — which serves 193,000 students in 280 schools — was a "smashing success." Schools that participate have reported better attendance, less tardiness, calmer and more focused students and fewer visits to the school nurse, Binkle said.

The program was launched in 2011 by L.A. Unified, the nonprofit Los Angeles Fund for Public Education and other partners. Similar initiatives have been introduced in Chicago, San Diego, Compton and other cities as a means to get children, especially those living in poverty, necessary nutrition.

But teachers in the union survey, conducted last month, gave the program mixed reviews. More than half of the 729 respondents said they had seen an increase in bugs and rodents in their classrooms, and that it took an average of 30 minutes to set up the breakfast, feed the students and clean up.

More than half disliked the program but said they would support it if sanitation and time issues were resolved.

In a video posted on YouTube by the union, Elena Kelly of Fourth Street Elementary School said she has lost time that she used to use planning lessons and preparing materials. She also said classrooms have become dirtier because students spill their milk or juice, but budget cuts have reduced custodial service.

Teachers also expressed concerns about food waste, the high sugar and fat content in some items and expired food and rotten fruit that they said they have received.

In an interview, Gulf Elementary School teacher Jeanne Contreras said the breakfasts take more time and cause more mess with younger children, some of whom can't peel fruit or open milk cartons themselves. Like 88% of teachers surveyed, Contreras said she supported breakfast in the cafeteria, not the classroom.

Binkle said his staff has tried to be responsive to concerns — cutting down on the number of food items served at one time to reduce waste and eliminating cereal completely this month after complaints that it was too messy.

But, he said, the relatively low number of teachers who opposed the breakfast service reinforced his perception that the program was a hit. The district plans to add 324 more schools next year in an expansion that could bring in more than $23 million in federal school meal reimbursements, he said.

"It's an A+ program that has been terrific for students," he said. "Our children need nutrition in order to learn in school."

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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