Do HISD Parents Know They Can Opt Out of “First Class Breakfast?”

Over on today’s The Lunch Tray I ponder this question: do universal in-class breakfast programs like HISD’s “First Class Breakfast” inadvertently contribute to childhood obesity, even as they seek to alleviate childhood hunger?

Just last week I was talking to some Houston public schools moms (from more affluent neighborhoods) who were complaining that their children have been “double dipping” every morning.  That is, they eat a perfectly satisfactory breakfast at home and then go off to school where they eat some or all of the in-class breakfast offered for free by our district.

A few days later, I saw this report in the New York Times which indicates that NYC’s City Council is slowing the roll-out of that city’s universal, in-class breakfast program for precisely the same reason:

 The city’s health department hit the pause button after a study found that the Breakfast in the Classroom program, now used in 381 of the city’s 1,750 schools, was problematic because some children might be “inadvertently taking in excess calories by eating in multiple locations” — in other words, having a meal at home, or snacking on the way to school, then eating again in school.

At the same time, though, I do believe that our First Class Breakfast program serves legitimate needs in HISD, a district in which over 80% of kids qualify for free or reduced price lunch.  Even despite concerns about food waste, sanitation problems, lost instructional time, and the quality of the food served, I’m told that principals at less affluent Houston schools enthusiastically laud the program, citing increased attendance, reduced tardiness and fewer discipline problems.  Those are real benefits that shouldn’t be dismissed.

But the goals of alleviating childhood hunger without contributing to childhood obesity can peacefully co-exist.  At my child’s HISD elementary school, our principal offers parents the option to have their child’s breakfast card removed from the stack of available meal cards; without the card, no breakfast can be obtained.  And if the parent changes his or her mind on a given day, he or she can send a signed note to that effect and a meal will be served.

But what’s troubled me for some time is how rarely this solution seems to be employed across HISD.  On an admittedly anecdotal basis, I’ve been told by many parents that the choice to opt their children out of breakfast has never been offered to them by their respective principals.  And the district has done nothing (of which I’m aware) to make the option widely known to the public.

And that leads to the question of money.  School food service departments generally welcome universal breakfast programs because they bring in more federal reimbursement dollars, particularly in districts like ours with large numbers of children in economic need.  As the Food Research and Action Center noted in a a comprehensive report on school breakfast:

If states could increase participation so they reach 60 children with breakfast for every 100 that also eat lunch, FRAC estimates that an additional 2.4 million low-income children would be added to the breakfast program and states would have received an additional $583 million in child nutrition funding.

Thus, districts with in-class breakfast programs have an economic incentive to serve as many meals as possible, regardless of whether some meals are being served to kids who have no need for it — and whose parents would greatly prefer they not partake of it.

I’m going to inquire further about the implementation of the opt-out option and will report back here.  In the meantime, I’d be curious to hear from HISD parents about whether you’ve ever been informed by your school that you can opt your child out of the breakfast program, and how you generally feel about First Class Breakfast now that the program has been in place for some time.

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[While I serve on HISD's Food Services Parent Advisory Committee and the district's School Health Advisory Council (SHAC), all views expressed here (and on The Lunch Tray) are entirely my own.]