Breakfast program bill draws some criticism

Robert Nott
The Santa Fe New Mexican
Jayleen Hernandez, 6, gets a bagel for breakfast in her first-grade classroom at Ramirez Thomas Elementary School on Wednesday.
Juliet Cabellero, 7, drinks a carton of juice while having breakfast in her first-grade classroom at Ramirez Thomas Elementary School on Wednesday.

SANTA FE – Seconds after the 8 a.m. bell rings, signaling the start of classes at Ramirez Thomas Elementary School in Santa Fe, about 20 first-graders in teacher Kristen Lewis' class immediately line up to eat breakfast. The menu includes a sausage-and-cheese bagel, a banana and milk. Lewis takes attendance and makes school announcements as the kids chow down at their desks.

Some days, she also can review vocabulary words while her students are having Breakfast After the Bell.

The state's breakfast program ensures that kids in low-income schools across New Mexico get a healthy meal in the morning. Some 116,000 students around the state, and more than 6,200 in Santa Fe, take part in the program. At Ramirez Thomas, the entire student body is considered low income, so all the kids get to eat together.

The program has a lot of supporters, but some of them, such as Lewis and Ramirez Thomas Principal Vanessa Romero, say that, as it works now, Breakfast After the Bell disrupts learning time and creates a mess in classrooms. They would like to see the breakfast served before the first bell, preferably in the cafeteria.

Two state senators — Republican Gay Kernan of Hobbs and Democrat Mimi Stewart of Albuquerque — say they have heard similar complaints. They are pushing a measure that would give schools more leeway in how they offer Breakfast After the Bell. Their bill, which the Senate Public Affairs Committee approved Tuesday, includes an amendment that reads, "As long as schools serve breakfast after the school day begins, schools may serve breakfast in the classroom, in the cafeteria or as a grab-and-go sack breakfast."

It also says that schools would not be prohibited from offering breakfast before the bell — as long as the Breakfast After the Bell component remains for students who don't get to school early.

"The [amendment] language clearly states that all children in this program must be fed," Stewart said Wednesday. "You can feed them before the bell, but if they show up after the bell, they have to be fed then."

Stewart said the program could still interrupt learning under the changes proposed by the bill — "if some kids don't get there until the bell rings, they may disrupt class" — but she said the bill still mandates that all children get fed.

Jenny Ramo, executive director of New Mexico Appleseed, which pushed Democratic legislators to sponsor bills establishing the program in 2011, argues that Kernan and Stewart's bill is problematic all the same. She said it "sets up a heartbreaking scenario in which a 6-year-old has to choose between practicing reading in his class and being sent to the cafeteria to eat, or a 9-year-old has to ask for a meal in front of her peers. ... Right now, every single child gets fed without having to ask for food or make a choice between learning and eating."

Ramo also said Kernan and Stewart's bill could create unexpected roadblocks and lead the state to lose federal funding for school meal programs. The program, paid for with $1.9 million in state funding, brings in about $27 million in federal dollars, she said, because if more children who are eligible for free and reduced-priced meals eat breakfast at school, then more federal money flows into the state.

At Ramirez Thomas, Lewis figures half of her students would go hungry without Breakfast After the Bell. She supports the program, she said, but it can cut into instructional time and be messy.

"We do lose [learning] time," Lewis said.

Lewis and Romero said they love the program and don't want it to go away. But they would like the school to have the flexibility to offer breakfast before the first bell rings, perhaps in the cafeteria. They said students often get to school by 7:30 a.m. and end up on the playground until class starts, and the school's cafeteria could serve breakfast then.

Among other pluses, Ramo and advocates for the program say having Breakfast After the Bell eliminates the stigma some students might feel over not having enough to eat at home.

In Lewis' class on a recent morning, the first-graders sat around circular tables munching on their bagels together. "It lets us eat with our friends," one girl said as she peeled a banana.

Others say the new bill won't necessarily work because kids who do arrive early at school are more likely to run to the playground for some exercise before classes. Nancy Cathey, executive director of operations for the Las Cruces school district, said there is no reason teachers can't structure the first 15 minutes of their classes with oral quizzes or reviewing the previous day's material while students eat breakfast.

Carmen Torres, one of Cathey's cafeteria managers in Las Cruces, said, "Principals and teachers come in, eat breakfast and have meetings around the table, so why can't the children?"

At Ramirez Thomas, first-grader Isabelle Engel said, "It's kind of messy. Sometimes people are not watching what they do." She used to spill her milk when she was in kindergarten, for example, but not anymore.

A juice spill occurred at the next table, and Lewis quickly mopped it up. That didn't bother her as much as the 15 minutes she was losing on reading, writing and arithmetic. But it may be well worth that price, she said, to ensure her kids are eating healthy food.

"I have to wonder how the kids would fare if they didn't eat breakfast at all," Lewis said.

The school has offered Breakfast After the Bell for four years, she said, so her kids just accept it as part of going to school.

Any New Mexico school with 85 percent or more children who qualify for free and reduced-price meals — a federal indicator of poverty — must provide Breakfast After the Bell. Schools with less than 85 percent of impoverished students may serve it, as well, though it is not mandatory.

On Friday, the Senate Education Committee voted 8-1 to approve a committee substitute to the bill which allows districts the freedom to offer breakfast in the classroom after the bell, in the cafeteria or even on a bus if need be. That substitution still ensures that the original Breakfast After the Bell program stays in intact to ensure all children in the program eat. The bill now will move to the Senate floor.