They were a familiar sight every morning, rolling down the halls of Seaside Heights Elementary School: wagons of packaged breakfast food and milk, wheeled by student assistants to their respective classrooms, where students ate during the first 15 minutes of the school day.
But after new federal guidelines changed what types of meals the government would reimburse school districts for – and therefore, what schools like Seaside Heights could serve – Seaside Heights Principal Sande Brown decided to think outside the wagon.
“We started looking at, ‘Could our kids have some other options?’” Brown said.
One of those options was bringing breakfast from the classroom to the lunchroom, with a hot breakfast option served before school began at 8 a.m.
“Everything that went to the classroom was cold and packaged,” Brown said. Using the lunchroom “gives us a broader variety of food for breakfast, and why not have a hot option?”
Seaside Heights instituted the change right before winter break, and the school’s breakfast menu now features one daily hot option, such as biscuits and gravy, a warm whole-grain cherry strudel, french toast sticks, cinnamon pancakes, a cinnamon “bagler,” or oatmeal.
The hot options supplement the fruit bar that’s part of every breakfast, skim and 1 percent milk, the Cheerios that are a common cold option and some of the packaged food that still remains – items like Danimals Yogurt and “Scooby Snack” breakfast cookies.
“Some of these things are still packaged,” Brown said. “But they’re an option.”
Third graders Rowan Anderson and Eva Bailey were two of the students who selected hot oatmeal over yogurt and Scooby Snacks one recent morning.
The friends both liked the school’s breakfast change.
“The food’s usually better than it used to be,” Eva said. “It used to be all packaged up and now it’s all hot and stuff.”
Fourth grader Cole Biamont liked the hot option and also appreciated the change of venue for breakfast.
“There’s more space, and you can sit by your friends,” Cole said.
Changing school diets
Seaside School District Business Manager Justine Hill said the district has done its best to prepare for the changes to the reimbursable meal system that have been rolled out gradually since the Healthy Hungry-Free Kids Act of 2010 was signed into law by President Barack Obama.
“We’ve been trying to relearn and re-educate the last two years, (with) major changes to the lunch program and minor changes to the breakfast program this year,” Hill said. “I can’t say it’s easy.”
Breakfast menus must offer at least four food items from the required food components: fruit, vegetables, milk and grains. Meat is no longer one of the required daily components, although it can be included with grains as part of the meal. A “meat alternate” covers protein-rich foods like cheese and yogurt.
“For breakfast, the biggest changes we had this year is we don’t get reimbursed for meat/meat alternates,” said Mackenzie Bovard, food service director for Chartwell’s, the food contractor that serves Seaside School District. “(A meat or meat alternate) can be considered a grain if it’s with another grain, or if it’s something like yogurt.”
The federal requirements also mandated that, effective last July 1, at least half of the grains offered at breakfast must be “whole grain-rich.”
Starting this year, school breakfasts are also free of trans fat, and by next school year, more fruit will be introduced and sodium will be reduced.
“Our meal pattern changed, where we’re more of a whole-grain menu,” said Bovard, who oversees the Seaside, Ocean Beach, Warrenton and Astoria school districts for Chartwell’s. “There were more sausages and cheeses last year.”
Seaside School District follows the National School Lunch Program’s “Offer vs. Served” program, which requires students to select at least three of the four components for a meal to be federally reimbursable.
“The theory is supposed to be that ‘Offer vs. Served’ cuts down on food waste, because if a child doesn’t like green beans, it doesn’t just get dumped on their plate,” Hill said.
Instead of simply throwing away the green beans they don’t like, students can avail themselves of the fruit and vegetable bar, which is a daily option, and find a vegetable they will eat.
The meals are counted by a school district “point of service” employee, who determines whether a student has at least three of the four required components on his or her plate.
“(Point of service employees) are supposed to be visually looking at the tray, saying, ‘Yes, you have three components,’ or, ‘Go back and pick up some carrots … because otherwise you’re going to have to pay for that meal,’” Hill said. “With a student who is free, the parents don’t appreciate when they have a $40 bill because all they’ve been getting is milk and a cracker.”
For breakfast, the school district receives $1.89 of federal money for every student receiving free lunch, $1.59 for every student receiving a reduced rate lunch – along with 30 cents from the state – and 28 cents for every student whose family pays full price for his or her breakfast, which costs $1.25 in the Seaside School District.
Seaside Heights has 270 students who are eligible for free or reduced lunch out of an enrollment of 409.
The 66 percent eligibility is the highest of the four district schools: Broadway Middle is next with 54 percent, followed by Gearhart Elementary at 49 percent and Seaside High School with 48 percent eligibility, according to the latest available numbers, which were compiled in December.
Hill said the reimbursement money helps the school district pay for food service staffing and Chartwell’s, which charges a flat fee per meal served. Last year, the company charged $1.97 per meal served, and this year that rate is $1.92, according to Hill.
The district’s budget for the 2013-14 school year allocated $295,100 for its contract with Chartwell’s.
At Seaside Heights and Broadway Middle School, the high percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch means that breakfast is free through a federal program aimed at aiding schools in need.
“You have to have a certain level … of what the Department of Child Nutrition considers poverty level,” Hill said. “The purpose of the program is that it can be cost-neutral if you can get the majority of the free and reduced students in, and you get the federal reimbursement … that offsets the cost of giving the paid students the meal free.”
At Seaside Heights, getting breakfast does mean getting to school earlier than when food was brought to the classroom via wagon, which, at least so far, has decreased the number of children receiving breakfast.
“So, far it looks like we have lost some kids,” Brown said. “The question is, were kids eating breakfast in the classroom after eating at home? … The next step is to figure that out.”
The Seaside Signal, 2.10.14.