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Experimental Program Serves Up Breakfast for All Students

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Hans Christian Open Elementary School in south Minneapolis had a common problem: a high percentage of its students qualified for federally subsidized breakfasts, but many chose not to eat to avoid the stigma of being labeled poor.

Nearly three-fourths of the school's 760 students qualified for the free or reduced-price meals, but only about 42 percent ate them.

This year, that number has jumped to 99 percent, thanks to a pilot program run by the state that provides free breakfasts to all students, not just the poor ones, in four schools.

The program stemmed from legislation sponsored by the Minnesota School Food Service Association that sought to make students nutritionally ready to learn and erase the embarrassment some students associate with subsidized meals.

The state has supplemented federal funding with $167,000, including a one-year, $20,000 grant to study the effect the breakfast program has on learning. The study will cover the 1994-95 school year.

"By making breakfast free for everyone, the poor eat as well as the kids who don't eat for other reasons," said Joleen Durken, the nutrition team leader for the state department of education. "We don't charge [students] for textbooks and bus rides, but we charge them for nutrition."

Soon after the legislature approved the program in May, the state department of education asked interested schools to submit grant proposals. State officials sought a commitment by students, teachers, parents, and food-service workers to make the program work.

The original participants are Dawson/Boyd Elementary School in Dawson, Hans Christian Open School in south Minneapolis, Hendricks/Ivanhoe Elementary School in Hendricks, and Oak Grove Elementary School in Bloomington.

Also, with the addition of state funds and contributions by corporate sponsors, two new schools joined in December.

Cheers From Educators

Participants are hailing the program as a success.

At Hans Christian Elementary, some students were apprehensive at first, said Craig Anderson, the program coordinator at the school.

"Students didn't believe they could eat for free," he said.

Students were not the only ones hesitant about the program. In the school, which serves students in prekindergarten through 8th grade, some teachers did not see a need for free breakfasts for the older students, Mr. Anderson said.

"But all the teachers have noticed a big change," he said. Students are calmer, he said, and teachers of older students find that they can lecture, pass out assignments, or allow students time for socializing during breakfast.

Ms. Durken said school nurses in the program's schools report few complaints of stomachaches, headaches, or other hunger-related ailments.

Sherre Walstad, the principal of Oak Grove Elementary School in Bloomington, said that only 60 of her 600 students, in kindergarten through 4th grade, were receiving subsidized breakfasts before the school joined the pilot program.

"Now there is full participation," Ms. Walstad said, adding that attendance has also improved. "Some of the kids used to get off the bus and head right to the nurse, but we have not had that."

The study is designed to evaluate the cognitive and social effects of the program. It is being conducted by the Center for Applied Research in Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota's College of Education.

Hopes for Expansion

"We wanted more formalized data," said Mary Begalle, the coordinator of food and nutrition services at the state food-services association.

A team of evaluators will present its preliminary research to the state this month. A final report--due Jan. 31, 1996--will examine food-intake data and the overall effects of the breakfast program on children.

Marsha Baisch, a graduate research assistant with the C.A.R.E.I. at the University of Minnesota, said the program has apparently succeeded. "The staff are better able to attend to the students, and there is no lag time."

Teachers feel the students are more attentive, have more energy, and are ready to work after socializing at breakfast, she said.

Though the program would be very expensive to implement statewide, proponents hope that the pilot's success will help them gain support for expanding the program, Ms. Begalle said.

"The program has really exceeded our wildest dreams," she added.

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