Gov. Josh Shapiro signs ceremonial budget bill creating universal free breakfast, during visit to an Allegheny County elementary School on August 8, 2023. (Commonwealth Media Services photo).
PHILADELPHIA – Gov. Josh Shapiro has widely touted his administration’s free breakfast program that provides children at all Pennsylvania public schools the first meal of the day.
“In my budget address, I called for universal free breakfast to put every kid on the same playing field. This budget delivers on that promise to provide free breakfast to all 1.7 million public school students in Pennsylvania, because our students can’t learn on empty stomachs,” Shapiro said at an August press conference Penn Hills Elementary School in Allegheny County.
Some districts already offered free breakfast to students through the federal meal program, including the School District of Philadelphia, where 31% of students participated in the free breakfast program last year.
But since the pandemic, Philadelphia School District reports that it has seen a decline in student participation in its free breakfast program. And school officials aren’t sure why.
“Following trends across the country, our student participation in breakfast has been lower since we came back from the pandemic. There could be many reasons, including a school’s capacity to offer breakfast in the classroom, barriers to getting to school early enough to access free breakfast, and/or decreases in enrollment and attendance,” Marissa Orbanek, communications officer for the Philadelphia School District, said.
Having breakfast in the classroom “requires collaboration and training between teachers, food services and operations to minimize disruptions to instruction and ensure compliance and clean environments,” Orbanek said.
Orbanek said that the district served about 6.3 million breakfasts or about 35,000 breakfasts daily, last school year.
Temple University will conduct a new five-year study in collaboration with the School District of Philadelphia to further investigate why Philly students don’t participate in the free federal meal program that provides breakfast and lunch.
The study will use online surveys as well as holding on-site visits twice every year to gather feedback. Students, staff, teachers, and caregivers will also be invited to participate in focus groups and conversations held by the research team. The study began this school year, and the research team hopes to have results by the end of 2028.
Mitigating food waste
To try to avoid food waste the district orders breakfast and lunch every two weeks based on historical data, meal participation, enrollment and school attendance, the School District of Philadelphia confirmed.
But there is sometimes food left over.
In 2021, Samantha Sandhaus, 17, a senior at Central High School, created Feeding Philly, a mutual aid student-led club committed to combating food waste and insecurity inside and outside of school walls.
Feeding Philly has two refrigerators inside the school, one located on the third floor near the cafeteria, the other on the first floor near breakfast distribution. This is where students, faculty, or staff can donate school-provided or private contributions including unopened, non-perishable items, and unexpired perishables kept at food-safe temperatures. The refrigerators are only accessible during school hours, and during after-school activities.
According to club sponsor Kristen Peeples, it has seen great success over the past school year. In 2022-23, the 340-member club had 600 hours of community service and they provided aid to over 500 families with their monthly food and aid distributions, according to Sandhaus.
Orbanek said that the district has provided additional support for something similar across schools for about 20 years. Schools do have the option for a “share table,” a designated area where students can contribute surplus, unopened food items in accordance with local and state health and food safety regulations. These contributions may include fresh produce, vegetables, or packaged meals, and it’s up to each school to decide whether to offer them.
Breakfast in the classroom
Other districts, such as the Norristown Area School District, have taken a different approach and seen a boost in participation by serving breakfast in the classroom.
In October 2019, Blockson Middle School, one of 12 Norristown Area schools, served about 85 breakfast meals a day, according to Superintendent Christopher Dormer– meaning about 11% of its 770-student population was participating in breakfast. At that point, students were eating breakfast in the cafeteria.
But when the school switched to serving breakfast in the classroom last year, participation skyrocketed. Blockson served about 530 breakfast meals daily last year, roughly 67% of the student population.
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The district had to make some changes to accommodate the new system, like ordering new breakfast-specific trash cans, and shifting trash pickup times for each classroom. But school officials said the program has had major benefits.
“We have almost 4,000 more kids that we know are eating breakfast every morning. That’s 4,000 more kids every day with their bellies full, their brains fueled, ready to learn,” Dormer said.
Dormer added that he would be happy to be a resource to the rest of the Commonwealth to provide information on funding, maintenance, and custodial changes that the district made.
Some teachers in Philadelphia have said they would be willing to have breakfast in the classroom if that meant students could start their day off feeling fueled and energized.
Eric Hitchner, a halftime English teacher and English as a Second Language (ESL) coordinator for 9-12th grades at Building 21 in Philadelphia, said he wants to see more action like the new state budget offers towards education.
“Before students are thinkers they are humans and have these basic needs. So, if anything is going to improve participation and remove stigma, let’s do it and keep it pushing. Don’t overthink it, and support students,” Hitchner said.
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