Champions of breakfast: School programs promoted

A program many educators hail as a boost to learning also draws criticism for placing additional burdens on public schools and allowing parents to shirk responsibility for caring for their own children.

One thing supporters and detractors alike acknowledge is the number of students participating in free or reduced-price breakfast programs is on the rise during an economic downturn.

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter wants schools to increase the number of students in the programs and has launched the School Breakfast Challenge to do so.

In Mesa County, the share of students receiving free or reduced-price breakfasts rose six points for the 2009-10 school year — from 38 percent to 44 percent of the  overall enrollment in Mesa County School District 51. That’s approximately 8,800 students who qualified based on federal family income standards.

“On one level, some would ask, ‘Why would you take that on?’” asked Steve Schultz, District 51 superintendent. “But wait a minute. We’ve been charged with teaching each student.”

Schultz said it’s difficult to teach a student who might have eaten one meal in the 12 hours prior to coming to school in the morning. “If you go to the core principals of what we’re about, yeah, I think it’s a good idea,” he added.

That’s the principle behind the governor’s call to increase enrollment in breakfast programs.

A news release issued by the governor’s office said studies show that students who eat a nutritious breakfast perform better on tests and demonstrate improved ability to concentrate and learn in the classroom.

“We want more children to take advantage of the school breakfast program so they can start the day with a nutritious meal, which will help them perform better in class,” Ritter stated in the news release issued in late July. “This is about reducing childhood hunger and giving our youngest citizens the best chance to succeed.”

The School Breakfast Challenge is a component of the Colorado Campaign to End Childhood Hunger. Ritter, Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien and the nonprofit groups Hunger Free Colorado and Share Our Strength  launched the campaign in November.

The goal of the challenge is to increase participation in free and reduced-price breakfast programs by 15,000 students this fall.

The three Colorado schools — and their nutrition directors — with the highest percentage increase in participation will receive cash prizes from the state program.

Schultz said the count of students enrolled in the District 51 program doesn’t include students who are eligible, but whose families don’t apply. That reality is another reason for the statewide campaign.