Bridgeport schools implement free breakfast program
BRIDGEPORT — The Bridgeport Exempted Village School District is now providing free breakfasts to students to ensure they are fueled up for learning.
District Food Service Director Donna Burlenski said the program was implemented Tuesday and the number of free meals spiked on the first try.
“We almost doubled what we usually do,” she said. “On Jan. 6, about 98 students ate and today we had 205 with cereal. Breakfasts have normally been running from 150-225 per day depending on what we’re having.”
According to national statistics from the Food Research & Action Center, more than half of public school students in the United States are from low-income families for the first time in history. About 12,000,000 children rely on free or reduced-cost breakfast meals with nearly double that many dependent upon free and reduced-price lunches. Additionally, more than 4,000,000 children rely on free food programs during summer, when school meals aren’t available. About 44 percent of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, participants are children, and three out of four teachers say students regularly come to school hungry. Such programs have shown positive results with increases in school attendance by 1.5 days and a 17.5 percent hike in standardized math scores when children start the day with a healthy breakfast. Hopes are to reduce food insecurity issues when schools ensure children feed their bodies as well as their minds.
The district currently has 756 students, and more than 50 percent of them are at or below the poverty level, which makes the district eligible to participate. Burlenski said it could also reduce the number of students visiting the school nurse with stomach aches and weakness or those who lose focus in class simply because they are hungry.
“I think it will benefit every student,” she added. “Helping them achieve their potential in education is why we’re here.”
Burlenski has seen more participation in the middle and high schools and believes it will grow throughout the buildings with bagged meals. Students receive meals on a tray for the 35-minute breakfast period, but remaining food is bagged and taken to finish in class when mealtime wraps up at 7:50 a.m. She said the grab-and-go bags proved to be popular, and teachers and administrators agreed to let the students finish eating at their desks, after which they tidy up their work area and begin their studies.
“One teacher asked her class who had not eaten and had six or seven students who didn’t have breakfast. She sent them down for a bag,” Burlenski commented. “I even saw paid students in high school take advantage. We hope we can continue it and hopefully one day we can give a free lunch.”
Meanwhile, Superintendent Brent Ripley is seeking potential funding opportunities help offset costs, including a grant through the Children’s Hunger Alliance of Ohio. He also sees many pluses with the free meal initiative.
“We did this universal breakfast after three months’ worth of work and reached out to representatives at the Children’s Hunger Alliance and Ohio Department of Education,” he noted. “We realized that we met additional qualifications for funding it further and we want to make sure kids could get breakfast regardless.”
He further cited numerous studies that show improvements in academics, behavior and participation.
“It’s good for families, for parents, for kids and for the faculty. It’s a win-win no matter how you look at it. When you are feeding kids, you are helping to bridge the gap.”