Breakfast bill aims to curb hunger in the classroom

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Have you ever tried to get work done when you're hungry? It's not a pretty situation.

You might feel tired, distracted, even angry until you are able to stop your stomach from grumbling. The benefit for most grownups is that as adults, they have the autonomy to get up from a work desk, or make a pit stop on the road to grab a snack or a drink to help put themselves back on track.

For kids, not so much.

If they miss a bus or have a snow delay, they might miss a whole meal period while rushing to class. For kids who come from households with food insecurity or who rely on a school breakfast program for nutrition, the wait for a meal might be even longer if they miss that morning food service window. Nearly 300,000 kids in low-income schools are eligible for free and reduced price breakfast, but only half participate.

The Massachusetts House and Senate are trying to change how and when kids in need can access breakfast through a piece of legislation on the table known as the Breakfast After the Bell bill.

Just before their legislative recess, the House unanimously passed the piece of legislation aimed at increasing school breakfast participation and subsequent health benefits for struggling students. The bill has been moved on to the Senate, and, if passed, would require more than 600 public schools where 60 percent or more of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch to offer students breakfast options after classes begin.

All five Berkshire delegates have signed on as petitioners to pass this type of legislation.

"We recognize that students need a healthy breakfast so they are ready for learning in the classroom, and this legislation gives that opportunity to all students," said House Speaker DeLeo, D-Winthrop, in a statement about the bill.

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Representative Alice H. Peisch, D-Wellesley, House chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Education, said the bill will give schools a choice on how breakfast is made available to students, be it through the cafeteria or through a combination of the cafeteria, and making healthy foods available to kids in the classroom or through a grab-and-go cart.

Such a program has already begun in Haverhill public schools, which is represented by bill co-sponsor Rep. Andres "Andy" Vargas.

"Our children should be hungry to learn, not hungry to eat," he said. "Breakfast participation doubled, from 42 to 85 percent, in one Haverhill school after it implemented Breakfast After the Bell."

According to its data, the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts serves 40,777 people in the Berkshires and 225,554 people across Berkshire, Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin counties. Of the people helped, 28 percent of them are young people, from birth to age 17.

After a successful pilot last year to meet the hunger needs of all students, North Adams Public Schools continue to provide a free breakfast and lunch daily to all students at no cost; Pittsfield also provides free breakfast and lunch to its elementary and middle school students.

If the Legislature approves the breakfast bill as it stands, full statewide implementation of the program would go into effect by the start of the 2022 school year. The true successes of these programs not only hinge on participation at the local level, but depend on federal reimbursements.

There is no question that creating access to nutritious and free meals can help improve the health of children and teens and give them a chance to perform better in school. What threatens the viability of this model is to what extent the federal government will alter the current eligibility guidelines for families to receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Currently, millions of people nationwide stand to lose that support.

The fewer families who qualify for SNAP, the fewer schools qualify for school meal reimbursements, and ultimately that means fewer students getting the nutrition that they need to start their school day the healthy way.

Jenn Smith can be reached at jsmith@berkshireeagle.com, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.


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