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Board hears results of free breakfast pilot program

The Pequot Lakes School District served students more than 26,000 free breakfasts in March and April, a dramatic increase over typical breakfast attendance.

The Pequot Lakes School District served students more than 26,000 free breakfasts in March and April, a dramatic increase over typical breakfast attendance.
Food service director Patty Buell reported findings of the pilot program she spearheaded this spring to the school board at its work session Monday, June 2.
Prior to the free breakfast promotion, the district served an average of 5,370 breakfasts per month. Buell said her goals with the promotion were multi-faceted, not only attempting to use the benefits of breakfast for increased student performance and health, but also to work at removing the stigma of being low-income, which she believes is associated with school breakfast.
โ€œThey (students) donโ€™t eat breakfast because they donโ€™t want to be included in that,โ€ she said. โ€œI wanted to remove that stigma. Anyone could come and eat without that social pressure.โ€
The biggest increase in student population eating breakfast at school came from those who qualify for full-priced meals. In prior months this school year, the number of breakfasts served to this population ranged from 1,312 to 2,071. During the promotion, Buell and her staff served 6,837 breakfasts in March and 9,087 in April to students in the full-price group.
For each breakfast served, a portion of the cost is reimbursed to the district by the state and federal government. The federal government reimburses $1.58 for each breakfast served to a student who qualifies for free meals, $1.28 for the reduced population and 28 cents for those in the full-priced population. The state reimburses 30 cents to the district for reduced-priced meals and an additional 55 cents for full-priced breakfasts.
During the promotion, this equated to funding of $12,756 in March and $17,090 in April.
Still, Buell said the program did take a loss once overhead costs are considered.
โ€œIt did cost more in labor dollars than I expected,โ€ she said.
More paraprofessionals were required to supervise the increased number of students, although this did not add cost as the district provided this supervision at no additional charge.
Buell said that despite the overall financial losses spurred by the free breakfast promotion, profits from school lunches were more than enough to cover the difference.
Another goal, Buell said, was to encourage more students to eat breakfast in May, when prices went back up to normal.
Although one month of data is a limited sample, it is clear that more students in each of the populations - free, reduced and full price - ate breakfast in May than in any other regular-priced month of the school year. A total of 8,521 breakfasts were served in May, a 63 percent increase over the average.
โ€œI wanted to change their habits so when the free promo was over, they would still want to eat breakfast because they got used to those benefits,โ€ Buell said.
Buell sought teacher feedback, and although she did not receive as many responses as she would have liked, the observations indicated students were more attentive in class and there appeared to be benefits particularly in April, when standardized testing took place.
Teachers also observed students coming late to class with many still eating their breakfast, although Buell attributed this to the newness of the program and the many kinks that were worked out throughout the two-month process.
Board chair Kim Bolz-Andolshek observed that in the future, it may be beneficial to offer the free breakfast program in the fall to see if the benefits can last throughout the school year. October is another month when students are tested, and Buell noted it might be best to offer the program during testing in both the fall and spring.

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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