Breakfast Participation Barely Up, Despite Holding Principals Accountable

by Christopher Paslay

Despite the opinions of child hunger advocacy groups, principals cannot replace parents.   

For child hunger advocates, it’s not enough that the Philadelphia School District offers free breakfast to every single child in every single city school. Principals must do more to coax the students into eating it.

In 2009, former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman enacted a policy that held principals accountable for the number of student breakfasts eaten in each school. Ackerman and child poverty advocates reasoned that including breakfast participation in a principal’s performance rating would significantly increase the number of students taking advantage of these free meals.

Nearly four years later, the percentage of school breakfasts eaten by Philadelphia public school children is up only 10 percent.  In 2009, about 30 percent of students eligible for a free breakfast took advantage, which is compared to about 40 percent today; 52 percent of elementary students, 42 percent of middle schoolers, and 28 percent of high schoolers eat the free school breakfast, according to an analysis released last week by Public Citizens for Children and Youth.

There’s no denying that nutrition has an impact on a child’s ability to learn. I’ve been teaching in Philadelphia for 16 years, and when my students are hungry, they have difficulty focusing on the lesson and staying on task. If I had my way, every child in the district would eat a hearty breakfast, complete with vitamins and dietary supplements to keep their minds sharp and their growing bodies strong and healthy.

But nutrition should not be the responsibility of school principals, despite the fact that groups like Public Citizens for Children and Youth argue otherwise.  Kathy Fisher, a director at PCCY, called for principals to get more involved in school breakfast participation.

Fisher Stated: “To just say, ‘Oh, well, the kids don’t want to participate,’ is not an acceptable answer to us.”

Interestingly, the role of parents doesn’t factor into the equation with groups like PCCY, or with the Philadelphia School District as a whole.  Historically, it seems as if the District has written off parents and the community altogether, deeming them too irresponsible to provide even the most basic guidance and care to their children.

Several years ago, to keep better track of subsidized school meals, the U.S. Department of Agriculture wanted to change the rules of its Universal Feeding Program, the free breakfast and lunch program offered solely in the Philadelphia School District. The program didn’t require students or their families to fill out applications to get subsidized meals, and USDA officials wanted to start requiring the forms for accounting purposes.

The School District and advocacy groups went berserk over the proposal. They insisted that forcing students to fill out an application for a free meal was too daunting – that parents of impoverished children were too overwhelmed to deal with complicated forms. The USDA ultimately relented.

Philadelphia School District officials are constantly talking about “raising the bar” when it comes to education and making academics more “rigorous.” Meanwhile, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has announced that the education reform train is leaving the station and everyone must get on board. Why, then, aren’t parents being asked to contribute?

I understand that filling out applications can be intimidating to some people, but why didn’t the District call on its parent ombudsmen back in 2009 to help struggling mothers and fathers learn the skill? So many things in life require an application – a driver’s license, a checking account, a credit card.

But the District didn’t want to be bothered with the inconvenience of working with parents. It’s better to keep students and their families in their comfort zone – quiet, pacified, hopelessly dependent.

Unfortunately, this is the attitude the District has taken when it comes to feeding students free breakfasts. The right thing would be to work with the community and educate citizens on the importance of nutrition. Free meals could be promoted on a grassroots level in Philadelphia’s impoverished neighborhoods, encouraging moms and dads to take part in their children’s health and schooling. Then, maybe, more kids would skip the Pepsi and bag of Doritos at the bus stop in the morning and get to school in time for the free apple juice and bagel with cream cheese.

But, unfortunately, District officials like Ackerman thought it was easier to blame the principals.  They thought wrong; the fact that breakfast participation has only increased a modest 10 percent – 60 percent of students still skip the free school breakfast – is proof.

Children rise to the level of expectations. If we made a true commitment to our students and their families, we could put a real dent in the cycle of poverty.

5 thoughts on “Breakfast Participation Barely Up, Despite Holding Principals Accountable

  1. You can’t say that because only 40% of kids are eating breakfast at school that 60% of kids are not eating breakfast at all. Maybe they’re not eating breakfast at school because they ate at home before they came to school. I serve breakfast in my 6th grade classroom everyday and a good number of my students don’t eat it because they ate at home. Some others eat depending on what is served. Honestly, some of the things that are being served in our schools are not appetizing and I wouldn’t eat them. You can’t put that on parents not being educated about nutrition. Yes, there are some students who are not eating at all or are settling for a bag of chips in the morning, but it is not even close to 60% of our students.

  2. Hey Daniel,

    I clarified my statement: It now reads, “60 percent of students skip the free school breakfast.” I thought that was implied, since the whole article is about free school breakfasts. With that said, let me ask you this: Who should be ultimately responsible for a child eating breakfast, whether it’s a freebie from school or at home? Parents or principals? I think this is the parent’s responsibility, which was the point of the article.

    Thanks for writing.


    • I completely agree that it should be the parent’s responsibility to make sure their children eat breakfast. There is no way for any principal or teacher to make sure every kid eats breakfast in the morning (and they do try, especially during testing time), unless they actually force them to take it and then force them to eat it (which is not possible and would bring about all kinds of problems). For principals to be evaluated on this is ridiculous, because there are too many other factors that go into whether a kid eats breakfast at school or not (eating at home, not liking the food, etc.).
      This is just another area where school staff are being expected to do the job of a parent, rather than the parent doing it, and getting blamed when it’s not done correctly.
      I do think we need to educate them about good nutrition – parents and students (and we do try), and there are things we can do to limit the choices they make (our students are not allowed to bring soda to school), but, ultimately, that responsibility needs to be held by the parents.

  3. Well, since teachers are blamed for everything from student attendance to student achievement, it’s about time principals were held accountable for something. Some principals will, of course, transfer this blame to the teachers, regardless. Chris, you have no idea what goes on in other schools.

  4. I BLAME SCHOOL LEADERS….FOR NOT MAKING GENUINE EFFORTS TO GET PARENTS INVOLVED AND THE SDP FOR NOT ASSISTING THE LEADERS AND TEACHERS IN SCHOOLS TO REACH PARENTS… Many leaders of the schools are not “Hands On” anymore, because they are not experienced, certified , not interested or just overwhelmed. Many new teachers either learn bad educational politics in their buildings or leave…There is no structure in many schools, even some of the Vanguard schools. Don’t think they are perfect either.
    If parents feel welcome, they will come…
    Know why kids don’t come for breakfast??? Because you would not either if you saw what they ate EVERY DAY!!!!. GIVE THEM FRESH WHOLESOME bowls, plates..NOT HEAT STUCK TO FOAM!!!! FRESH..FRUITS…SMOOTHIES…MAKE IT WORTHWHILE FOR THEM!!!
    The food is squished in the package, thrown on a plate/FOAM no sanitizer available either in some schools!!!!!! and many cafeterias are dreery, undecorated and lonely. Let me get in there and make some changes FOR NO EXTRA COST!!!! And you will see kids coming for breakfast.
    Then again, I’m committed…and if you want to know the truth ???
    Do “they” really care about the kids…OR DO THEY CARE ABOUT NUMBERS AND THE MIGHTY DOLLARS THAT COME IN IF THE FOOD IS GIVEN OUT???? Put in your number honey..we need to keep track!!!
    If they took time to remember why they are in the job, and get rid of the ones who don’t care…we might see change…UNTIL THEN…NOGO!!!
    AND I MEAN THE ONES AT THE TOP WHO MAKE THE DECISIONS ABOUT THE FOOD, PACKAGING AND HOW THEY TREAT STAFF!!! None of this is the fault of the cafeteria workers who work HARD to deal with disgruntled kids who sometimes feel they are in prison waiting for slop. This may be their only meal!!! We can make it great!!! The buyers need to take more time…they need to go into schools to see what they have created!!!
    How do I know…I eat with kids at breakfast and lunch, I spend time with them… I go to visit their homes, I know the music they listen to, I understand who they are and how they feel… ( for 27 years)
    Commitment??? Let’s all look at ours!!!!

    Chris..Thanks again for giving us a place to speak!!!

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