starting the day right

Some parents question health of school breakfast, but change is slow

One of the products served in Denver's "breakfast in the classroom" program.

The “Frudel,” a pastry with apple or cherry filling, is not the only food that has rankled a group of Denver Public Schools parents — but it may be the best example of what they say are an excess of sugary, processed foods served through the district’s expanding breakfast-in-the-classroom program.

The Frudels have 11 grams of sugar and are served warm inside blue plastic wrappers emblazoned with a smiling Pillsbury Dough Boy. Parents describe how some of the children in the Pre-K classroom jump up and down with excitement on Frudel day, gobbling up school breakfast even after parents take pains to serve a full breakfast at home. They say the food is placed within easy reach of the four-year-olds, so it’s almost inevitable that children take it even if they’ve already eaten or their parents want them to pass.

“I’ve been seeing the gooeyness and dessertiness of the things being served in my child’s classroom,” said Anne Davis, whose daughter attends the central Denver elementary school where about eight parents have raised concerns. (The parents didn’t want the name used for fear it would reflect negatively on the school.) “It’s the perfect kid junk food.”

In addition to worries about spiking blood sugar and subsequent behavior problems, parents are frustrated by their children’s untouched lunches and a sudden new interest in junk food.

And while the parents who have raised concerns are financially secure, they say the low-income children that breakfast-in-the classroom programs are designed to feed are not well-served either.

“Nutritionally it fails, and then as far as equaling out the playing field for kids. It’s putting them more at a disadvantage than helping them,” said Heather Ramirez, whose son is in a Pre-K class at the school. “It’s disadvantaging the disadvantaged.”

Currently, about 60 Denver schools, many with large majorities of low-income students, offer breakfast in the classroom, which is free to all students. Others will add the program next fall when Colorado’s new “Breakfast After the Bell” law takes effect. The law, signed last May, will require schools where 80 percent or more students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals to offer breakfast after the official start of the school day. The 80 percent threshold will drop to 70 percent starting in the 2015-16 school year.

The recent complaints about breakfast in the classroom highlight the complicated logistics of the program, which requires everything from months-in-advance food bids to the daily delivery of thousands of meals to individual classrooms via trucks and insulated coolers.

The concerns also illustrate the push and pull between what kids will eat and what adults want them to eat.

Theresa Hafner, executive director of enterprise management for DPS, said parent opinions on food offerings are important. But, she said, “if the kids don’t eat it we’re not accomplishing our mission.”

A DPS staff member from the nutrition services department is set to meet with concerned parents in early March. For some of them, the problem with school breakfast is not purely nutritional. It’s about the message schools are sending to kids about what is good for them.

“Educationally speaking, it’s teaching some really bad food habits,” said Davis.

Several outside observers agree that the parents have valid concerns and are not alone in their frustration, but they also note that the DPS has been a leader in adopting scratch cooking in school cafeterias and making other healthy changes, particularly in the lunch program.

“DPS has a reputation for really being committed to improving their school meal program,” said Carol Muller, regional field manager for Colorado Action for Healthy Kids. “There is no quick answer to this. It is a long process.”

A closer look at the food

Besides the Frudels, parents have questioned DPS breakfast foods like Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal, glazed French toast, apple juice, and pre-packaged apple slices that are sometimes mealy. Not only do breakfasts generally include too much sugar and too many preservatives, parents say they include too few protein items and non-processed fruits and vegetables.

In addition, they say sometimes items like cheese sticks or yogurt are listed on school menus but do not show up in the classroom. Hafner said published menu items should be present but are occasionally absent because the product was recalled, the vendor ran out or a district manager made a mistake.

While DPS breakfast foods and ensembles all adhere to federal rules governing school meals, those rules do not require protein products or limit sugar specifically. They do require milk, one to two grain products and a half cup of fruit product each day. They also set minimum and maximum calorie amounts, limit saturated fat and prohibit transfat.

School breakfast resources

“It’s odd to me that there’s not a protein requirement for breakfast,” said Jeremy West, nutrition service director for Weld County District 6.

Cost is the main reason, said Anjali Budhiraja, public affairs specialist for the United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Services in the Mountain Plains region. When the new rules, which took effect last summer, were under consideration many food service directors commented that a protein requirement would make their breakfast programs too expensive.

Ann Pierce, a nutritionist who Ramirez knows, reviewed a week’s worth of school breakfasts based on a photographic log the concerned parents put together. The log included nutritional information for some items.

“It’s not terrible for what I’d expect from a public school, but it’s not great either,” said Pierce, who runs Pierce Whole Nutrition. Pierce said pastries, sugar cereals and juice are all worth eliminating from school breakfast menus, but she was happy to see fruit and sunflower seed butter on the menu sometimes.

“Sun butter is great. That’s a really good food to have in there,” she said.

The irony is that both parents and DPS food service staff agree that students don’t generally like the sun butter and often throw it out. Hafner said it is included because the prevalence of peanut allergies means peanut butter is off limits.

Menu additions that Pierce proposes include hard-boiled eggs, breakfast burritos with vegetables and beans, or even hummus and carrot sticks. Hafner said the district has served hard-boiled eggs as part of its after-school snack program and will consider doing so for breakfast. In addition, the district is currently testing a bean and cheese burrito, an egg and cheese pita and a “breakfast pizza.”

What other districts offer

Food service directors around the state consistently say hot scratch-cooked items are a tall order when it comes to breakfast in the classroom. Not only do they take time to make, package and deliver, proper temperature control throughout the distribution process can be tricky.

West said his district, which has 17 schools with classroom breakfast, offers a scratch-made hot entrée once a week on Fridays. His team starts preparing the Friday item, either a breakfast burrito or an egg and cheese sandwich, on Wednesday.

“It just takes time to do that,” he said.

West said districts seeking to offer hot breakfasts more frequently almost have to use more processed items. Currently, Weld 6 serves cold items, including cereal, yogurt, cheese sticks and breakfast bars, Monday through Thursday.

In Denver, the cinnamon roll, which is sweetened with apple sauce, is the only scratch-made item served during the three-week breakfast menu cycle. Time constraints are part of it. The other part, Hafner explained, is that a student survey last year indicated that items like scratch-made muffins were unpopular. Only 22 percent of students rated them “good,” whereas Frudels earned 66 percent approval.

In the Boulder Valley School district, which has breakfast in the classroom at four schools, the one weekly hot item is a breakfast burrito made by EVOL, which uses no artificial flavors, colors, preservatives or fillers. The rest of the week, the district serves items like bagels and cream cheese, muffins from Udi’s bakery, cheese sticks, yogurt, and cereals like multi-grain Chex.

“We’re not buying the Frudels, the Pop Tarty things,” said Ann Cooper, the district’s director of food services. “The cereals we use are very low sugar.”

Hafner said DPS doesn’t serve cereal with more than six grams of sugar. To compare, a serving of Kellogg’s Raisin Bran has 18 grams of sugar and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes has three grams of sugar.

In Jefferson County, which offers classroom breakfast at eight schools this year, items served include mini pancakes, mini waffles, breakfast burritos, pigs in a blanket, banana or zucchini bread, fresh fruit cut up by kitchen staff, and unsweetened apple sauce. None of the entrée items are scratch cooked.

Linda Stoll, the district’s executive director of Food and Nutrition Services, said just because food comes prepackaged, doesn’t mean it’s bad for you.

“There are different perspectives on what is healthy out there,” she said.

The next step

School food service directors, including Hafner, say parents can and should express their concerns to staff. Hafner noted that some of the problems cited by parents, including that breakfasts are placed on central tables or counters, don’t stem from food service dictates, but are simply classroom-level or school-level decisions.

As for issues directly related to the food service department, change probably won’t happen overnight.

“They may have a warehouse full of the stuff they’re serving now,” said Muller.

Bureaucratic procedures can also hinder rapid change. Stoll said she is already in the middle of the formal bid process for food purchases next year. That means by this spring, she will have many of next year’s meal items set. While re-bids are possible, she said it’s a time-consuming process.

“Parents sometimes think the food service director hasn’t listened, but that’s not true,” she said. “You can’t turn the Titanic on a dime.”

Hafner and others also say it’s imperative to strike a balance between healthy foods and foods kids like.

“You can’t get so healthy, they’re not going to eat something,” said West, who has led his district through a transition to mostly scratch cooking in the last few years.

He knows from personal experience that it takes time for kids to accept homemade foods when they’re familiar with processed food at school, and perhaps at home. He said when Weld District 6 quit using dehydrated potato flakes and began mashing red potatoes with the skin on, students were not happy.

“They were like, ‘What’s in that?’” he said. “For the first year, my elementary students just kind of looked at them on the plate.”

Now they love them, he said. It may be an argument for patience and baby steps as breakfast in the classroom evolves. And for concerned parents, that may be a palatable solution.

“They need to tweak the food,” said Ramirez. “I don’t think they need…to get rid of it.”

Extra sleep

Two Colorado districts shift to later high school start times — for very different reasons

PHOTO: planetchopstick/Creative Commons

The 22,000-student Greeley-Evans school district in northern Colorado will join the 55,000-student Cherry Creek district in suburban Denver in adopting later high school start times this fall.

But unlike in wealthier Cherry Creek, the change in Greeley was not the result of a lengthy process to review research and solicit community feedback. Instead, the move came out of a very different conversation: How could the cash-strapped district tighten its belt?

After Greeley voters rejected a district tax measure last November, a chronic bus driver shortage loomed larger than ever. With no additional money to beef up driver salaries and more than a dozen driver vacancies, district officials needed to reduce the number of routes. They decided to discontinue busing for most high school students — part of a package of cuts that will save the district $667,000 a year.

That decision divorced the start time debate from the common concern that pushing high school bell times later requires more bus routes and more money.

“We were only able to move the high school start time by seriously limiting — in fact, almost eliminating — bus transportation for our high school students,” district spokeswoman Theresa Myers said.

She noted that all district students are eligible for free transportation on city buses. About two-thirds of district students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, a proxy for poverty.

Later middle and high school start times have gained traction in Colorado and nationally in recent years with mounting evidence that teens are hardwired to go to bed later and wake up later. When school schedules align with sleep patterns, research shows students are healthier, attend school more regularly and do better academically.

Nationally, Seattle Public Schools is one of the largest districts to embrace later start times — pushing high school and most middle school start times to 8:45 a.m. last year, with plans to shift to 9 a.m. this year. Also, in what could be the first statewide start-time mandate in the country, California lawmakers are currently considering legislation that would prohibit the state’s middle and high schools from starting before 8:30 a.m.

In Colorado, the move to later start times has been relatively slow. Until March, when both the Cherry Creek and Greeley-Evans school boards voted on the schedule changes, only a few smaller districts had made the switch. They include Montezuma-Cortez in southwest Colorado and Harrison in Colorado Springs.

Both Denver Public Schools and Boulder Valley considered later high school start times in the last couple years, but ultimately shelved the idea. Boulder Valley officials said the prospect of increased transportation costs was one of the reasons they didn’t move forward.

In Denver, which currently doesn’t provide district busing to most high school students, administrators expressed concern about complicated transportation logistics, after-school sports schedules and conflicts for students with after-school jobs.

Cherry Creek officials say the change in start times this coming year won’t cost the district more money.

In both Cherry Creek, the state’s fourth-largest district, and Greeley-Evans, the 13th largest, high school start times will shift 45 minutes to an hour later this year. In Cherry Creek, high schools will start at 8:20 a.m. and middle schools will start at 8:50 a.m., and in Greeley-Evans, high schools will start at 8 a.m. and middle schools will start at 8:30 a.m.

Other changes in Greeley-Evans include greater walk distances for students at all levels. That means high-schoolers won’t qualify for busing unless they live more than three miles from school, middle-schoolers won’t qualify unless they live more than two miles from school, and elementary kids won’t qualify unless they live more than 1.5 miles from school.

Myers said the new start times haven’t caused much consternation among parents.

“It’s more the transportation issue (that’s) causing some angst for some of our families,” she said. “We’re really going to watch and see how this impacts attendance and tardiness at our schools.”

shot down

Boys & Girls Clubs unlikely to open soon in Memphis schools as SCS funding plan collapses

PHOTO: Boys & Girls Club
The Boys & Girls Club provides after-school programs for children and teens.

If there’s a downside to the improved financial condition of Shelby County Schools, it’s the challenge of getting additional funding for a new initiative, even if everyone agrees it’s a good idea.

That scenario played out this week as some county commissioners balked at a request for an extra $1.6 million to open Boys & Girls Clubs inside of three Memphis schools.

The decision was close, just one vote shy of approval, demonstrating the tension among commissioners wrestling over how to invest in a community with big needs, limited resources and a desire to keep property taxes in check.

In many ways, the proposal to open school-based clubs felt like a slam-dunk. Boys & Girls Clubs have programming. The district has empty space. Neighborhoods near schools have young people in need of enriching afterschool activities.

“We talk everyday about crime, and this is a safe haven,” Chairman Melvin Burgess told his fellow commissioners on Monday in arguing for the investment. “What people don’t know is that an afterschool program is a place for kids to go instead of an empty home.”

But even as the district’s $985 million spending plan sailed through the board, several commissioners questioned the need for anything extra.

“I really support Shelby County Schools spending their own money to do it,” said Commissioner David Reaves. “They have $80 million sitting in a savings account, and we gave them a huge bump last year. Here’s the reality: I was on the school board and I know how it works. They need to spend their own money.”

The decision kicks the proposal back to district leaders, who have been in talks for months with Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis.

A district spokeswoman said Wednesday that Shelby County Schools has no plans to fund the initiative at this time.

Keith Blanchard, the president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs, agreed that it’s now unlikely for new clubs to open inside of Dunbar Elementary, Riverview School and Craigmont High by 2018.

“This process has drug out so long, we don’t know what next steps will be yet,” he said. “If we can secure funding at this point, maybe we start in just one school in the fall. Maybe we try again next year. We’re not giving up.”

Shelby County Schools began its 2017-18 budget season without a shortfall for the first time in years, allowing the district next year to provide teacher raises, hire new guidance counselors and behavior specialists, and make new investments in struggling schools.

But Superintendent Dorsey Hopson says the school system still doesn’t have enough money to propel students to academic success in a community challenged by high poverty and mobility.

Such concerns are among the reasons that school-based investments in Boys & Girls Clubs made all the more sense, according to the idea’s backers.

“(The commission vote) was really disappointing,” said Blanchard. “We thought we had the votes going in. I think it was most disappointing for the students who were there, and for them to have to listen to the reasons why this didn’t pass.”