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Chicago Schools Serve Up Breakfast, But Not Everyone's Happy

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The food mega-giant, Chartwells Thompson, just won a ginormous contract from the federal government contract to provide a free breakfast to every single Chicago Public School student. For the nation's third largest school system, that's over 410,000 breakfasts served, every single day. We know that hungry kids can't learn, so if providing an affordable nutritious lunch for every school kid is a blessing, surely tacking on a free breakfast would be a double blessing, right?

At the risk of looking at a $41 million-a-year gift horse in the mouth, many CPS parents are apoplectic. A vocal group at Blaine Elementary argues that the 10 minutes spent serving, eating, and cleaning-up breakfast -- which could easily balloon into 15 or 20 minutes -- will gobble-up precious classroom instructional time amounting to at least 10 days a year. In a system that already has one of the shortest school days (and school years) in the country, students would lose a whopping six months of accrued instruction by the time they graduate from elementary school. While this educational time-grab will cut across all class lines, it will most seriously impact those living in poverty, the very children the measure's designed to help.

At Nettelhorst, my neighborhood's public elementary school, reaction has been mixed. For nearly a decade now, our parents have moved mountains to improve the school's food situation, a critical effort given that almost half of all Nettelhorst families struggle to put food on the table. Some question why our free breakfast at early morning drop-off has suddenly become insufficient. Since almost all Nettelhorst students live in the neighborhood and walk to school, critics look to some distant central office bureaucrat placing limits on our principal's power and authority and cry foul.

Putting aside the issue of lost instructional time, others question what's actually being served. While Chartwells promises super-nutritious meals of cereal, fruit, milk and eggs, if their current lunch offerings are any indication of what's to come, kids will likely be eating sugar-coated, carbon-dated cereals and fruit cups, high fat-hormone riddled chocolate milk, and processed egg McMuffins. Are we really doing children a favor by serving nutritionally bankrupt food at anytime? Given the shear volume of meals and logistics involved, the image of mom happily stirring-up a bowl of hot oatmeal seems positively quaint.

Plus, there's the question of waste. Instead of serving breakfast in the lunchroom, the measure has every child eating breakfast at his or her classroom desk, so every meal will be individually packaged in some predictably cost-effective manner. Isn't low-quality, highly processed food in non-recyclable packaging, just junk wrapped in extra junk? How many individually wrapped "grab and go" bags will go-go-GO! directly into a landfill? And what of our already overburdened teachers and custodial workers who will be saddled with cleaning up the inevitable mess every single day?

In just two days, more than 1,100 parents representing 21 CPS schools signed a petition opposing the initiative.

For many, it's hard to muster sympathy for stroller-pushing elites, with their Scandinavian toys and double lattes, whining about a few minutes of lost instructional time, when so many disadvantaged children come to school hungry. While just 25 percent of Blaine students qualify for free and reduced-price meals, 80 to 90 percent is the norm almost everywhere else. "We understand you have 1,100 signatures," CPS Board President Mary Richardson-Lowry snapped, "but we have 410,000 students we need to consider."

True enough, you don't have to be Sally Struthers to give a damn: the sweeping measure is not intended to feed the full (although every kid will get a meal, regardless of need, interest or allergy). While a before-school meal might seem like a more logical solution (potential stigma aside), children who rely on school buses can't take advantage of it, and families struggling with poverty face many barriers to participation, including getting to school on time, let alone early. If a few well-off kids leave home only to arrive at school to scarf down a second (potentially inferior) breakfast, so be it. For a hungry child, any breakfast, even if it isn't the world's best, is surely better than none at all.

With so many disadvantaged children at risk, schools should be able overcome a few obstacles. Breakfast need not turn into some crazy, loud brouhaha. Can't children manage to multitask at their desks -- just like they do at home? As any Montessori kindergartener can handle serving, eating, and cleaning-up after himself, a teacher shouldn't need to be an educational wizard to turn the daily at-desk breakfast routine into a teachable moment on personable responsibility. Or maybe teachers could spend the time educating kids about the gazillion dollar a year agricultural industry that drives much of our country's economy.

So, how should CPS balance the needs of so many hungry students against concerns about lost instruction time, sub-par food, and chronic waste?

Greg Christian, Chicago's answer to Alice Waters, has been advocating for universal school breakfast for six years now, and says that the present mandate is a promising start, but laments the lost opportunity for real transformative change. If leaders built sustainability into contracts at the inception, many of these seemingly intractable problems would magically solve themselves.

However, given the current reality on the ground,Christian insists that principals of high-achieving schools should be allowed to opt-out of the program or even come up with their own creative solutions. For a school of 600 students like mine, the total annual cost amounts to roughly $65K. With that kind of budget, Jason Weedon, the CEO of Gourmet Gorilla, Nettelhorst's independent provider afterschool snacks, says that his company could offer a 100 percent Certified Organic, locally-sourced, fresh, well-balanced breakfast that includes a protein, fruit and grain, perhaps yogurt, Swiss oatmeal, free range scrambled eggs, or whole wheat pancakes --with minimal, recyclable packaging. Yummy.

Christian says that the failure to allow individual school autonomy is the price of doing backroom business with a behemoth like Chartwells. No surprise, the rumors of graft swirling around the rushed public/private deal are hardly raising eyebrows around here. Chartwells' existing contract already exceeds $50 million annually, and the new breakfast contract will almost double that. Initially, school meals chief Louise Esaian boasted the new program could bring an additional $8.9 million in revenue, but then, quickly reversed course, saying that CPS surely wouldn't loose money. For a system as deeply in debt as CPS, one would think that 10 million smackers, give or take, would matter to somebody downtown. In any case, the great state of Illinois ranks second to last in country for education funding, so if the federal revenue stream dries up, our kids will likely learn to do without.

Even if the current initiative is just the first step of many, at least it's a step in the right direction. Next week, my school will host a public screening of the new documentary Lunch Line, which follows six Chicago kids from disadvantaged neighborhoods as they as they set out on a mission to fix school lunches -- ending up at the White House. At the post-screening discussion with the director and an invited panel of experts, "breakfast-gate" will likely dominate, but at least now people are talking. The new CPS policy, whatever it's flaws, aims to nourish Chicago's children -- and that, in and of itself, is a very good thing.

Ultimately, Chicago will need strong mayoral leadership to reform the system. The obvious solution is to build nutrition and sustainability into food contracts, give principals more autonomy to make smart decisions, and extend the school day so that our fine, fine teachers have enough time to give our kids what they need. I sure hope our new mayor has a good breakfast built into his contract, along with a strong pot of coffee.