By YANG ZHANG
Capital News Service
LANSING –A whole-grain muffin, a glass of milk and an oatmeal bar start the day for students in Belding Area Schools. And the food is free.
The district began the free breakfast program for all its K-12 students regardless of income two years ago.
“We want to make sure that every student has breakfast before classes start,” said John Klapko, the district’s food service director.
Belding is one of the 206 districts that met the Education Department’s Breakfast Challenge. Among the others are Lincoln Park Public Schools, Kent City Community Schools, Macomb Intermediate School District, Oakland International Academy and Pontiac City School District.
Launched in partnership with the Okemos-based United Diary Industry of Michigan, the project sought to increase participation in the federally funded breakfast program by at least 50 percent in two years.
Michael Flanagan, state superintendent of public instruction, said the federal program of free or reduced-cost breakfasts has been significantly underused in Michigan.
Gloria Zunker, a school district consultant at the department, said 80 percent of schools offered breakfast, but only 14 percent of students took advantage of it two years ago.
The federal program has existed for more than four decades with participation based on family income.
After the Breakfast Challenge began, nearly 12 million more breakfasts were served to about 68,000 more students statewide in 2009-10, according to the department.
An average of 1,290 students eat school breakfast every day in Belding, a 237 percent jump from 2008.
Lincoln Park has increased its daily participation by 180 percent.
Lapeer, Clintondale and Les Cheneaux community schools saw more than a 60 percent raise from two years ago.
Schools breakfasts contain whole-grain bread, bagles or muffins, fat-reduced milk or juice and fresh fruits to meet federal nutritional requirements.
Zunker said schools encourage students to eat breakfast in a variety of ways, such as breakfast in the classroom and “Grab-n-Go” breakfasts from mobile carts.
Some schools drop off students at cafeterias before they go to class, she said.
Alice Jo Rainville, a nutrition and dietetics professor at Eastern Michigan University, said breakfast is crucial to children’s development.
“It starts your day,” she said. “Nutrition in breakfast helps children build their bodies.”
Studies show eating breakfast fosters attentiveness and achievement, improves children’s ability to learn, reduces tardiness and misbehavior, helps prevent obesity and establishes healthy habits, Rainville said.
She said teachers also serve as model of healthy eating when they eat breakfast with students.
Lincoln Park Superintendent Richard Rockwell said he has noticed that students are less tardy because they come to school early to get free breakfast.
Belding’s Klapko said his teachers are happy because students focus better in class after eating breakfast.
And Jane Zehnder-Merrell, director of the Kids Count project at the Michigan League for Human Services, said school breakfast is particularly helpful for children in poverty.
The league is a nonprofit policy and advocacy organization that works to ensure economic security for low-income residents.
Zehnder-Merrell said it’s a challenge for some low-income parents to meet the nutritional needs of their children.
Although they can get food assistance, it covers only two thirds of their basic food budget, she said.
A free and nutritious breakfast at school helps solve the problem, Zehnder-Merrell said.
Rockwell said serving breakfast in the classroom creates a positive school culture. For example, teachers talk with students about their after-school life and plans for the day while serving breakfast.
“It’s homey,” Rockwell said. “It’s a warm, inviting and relaxing way to begin the day.
Twelve school districts that achieved the highest increases in participation for their programs, including Belding, Lincoln Park, Conner Creek and Reed City, received cash awards from United Diary Industry to help with future breakfast promotion programs.
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.