Terry Grier's Breakfast in the Classroom - Food For All or an Enormous High Caloric Dump Site?

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As Breakfast in the Classroom spreads across the breadth and width of the Houston ISD, Superintendent Terry Grier has announced he's been getting some "push back" from parents and educators who aren't embracing the plan.

Critics -- most from some of the more affluent schools in the district -- pretty much hate the "push back" connotation. How did asking questions get turned into "push back?" they ask.. If they don't agree with the superintendent, does that somehow mean they're disloyal to the district? Some say Grier's leadership style -- they term it controlling -- is as disturbing as the actual food being handed out.

The critics have other concerns:

  • By putting the breakfasts into the classroom instead of in a cafeteria, more of a mess is made and instructional time is cut into. (HISD denies there is a mess.) As one person told Hair Balls: "It amounts to 8-1/2 days of instructional time a year." (HISD says it's done during morning announcements so no instructional time is lost.)
  • The breakfasts are too high in calories and have too much processed food in them. Some have totally inappropriate food in them like animal crackers
  • Some kids who've eaten at home are going to eat again and what does that say about the nation's obesity problem? And why isn't there more fruit?
  • There's massive waste. In the one-size-fits-all format, a kid has to take the whole breakfast, even though he may only want a portion of it. The rest gets thrown in the trash because U.S. regulations say the food can't be used for anything else. (Think what the Star of Hope or the Houston Food Bank could do with these leftovers). This is a longstanding problem for HISD that seems to have gotten worse with the increase in volume.

Several insist Grier reversed himself from a March 24 memo which they say promised that individual schools would be able to customize their breakfast programs (delivered by Aramark) to meet the best needs of their particular location. In it, Grier said:

We have received some "push-back" from parents at several of our schools who oppose the First Class Breakfast program's being required districtwide. Some have expressed concern that this may be one of the first steps to "re-centralize" decision-making--major decisions being made by the central-office staff instead of at the school level. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Others feel that a large percentage of the children in their schools already eat breakfast at home and should not have to sit by and watch other students eat breakfast in their classrooms or feel pressured into eating breakfast twice. We want to be clear that principals and teachers in each school have the complete freedom to design their program to meet the needs of students in their school. No two programs have to look exactly the same.

Some parents took this to mean flexibility, including the ability to remove the delivery from the actual classroom and keep it in the cafeteria where it has been at most schools. They see it as Grier reversing himself when he said a few days later that the breakfasts have to go to the classroom.

HISD Spokesman Norm Uhl said it is a misinterpretation to say that Grier reversed himself. "The part about designing the program to meet the needs of students in their schools does not mean move it back to the cafeteria. It means design a breakfast in the classroom program that meets the need of their schools," Uhl says.

The idea that the breakfasts shouldn't be in the classroom makes no sense, he adds. "We already had schools serving breakfast in the cafeteria. What happens if Johnny's bus is late that morning? And he's got to go to first period. And he can't go get breakfast. But if they serve it first period ...then he'll still get breakfast."

Several parents reported that "allowed" or otherwise, not all schools are bringing breakfast to the classrooms Roberts Elementary, which just started its breakfast program a few weeks ago (it wasn't supposed to begin until September but it announced it was starting early) is serving breakfast in the cafeteria and the hallways, several parents say. Uhl says there are some schools that are still "transitioning" to breakfast in the classroom.

Even in the most affluent schools, a segment of kids in that school are disadvantaged, Uhl says.

"And the main goal is to get it to the disadvantaged kids. But in order not to and this is part of the reason, part of the reason is not calling attention to people being disadvantaged so you just give it to everybody and everybody is treated equally and nobody knows who's on free- or reduced lunch or not. By transferring it from the cafeteria to the classroom, we have more kids eating breakfast. That kind of tells the story about why you'd want to do it in the classroom," Uhl says.

Citizen blogs have risen up to ask questions and issue challenges. This one done by a parent named Lisa comes complete with colored photos of how much food and drink is being thrown out each day and invites other parents' comment.

Uhl said the district would like to see some of the U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations changed, specifically the so-called "straight serve" that calls for the kids to get everything on a tray or nothing. "Part of it is just trying to get the USDA to look at their regulations," he says.

"It leads to waste. But it's a federal rule; we have no choice. That's actually something we've talked to the USDA about," Uhl says.

Besides citing studies that have shown eating breakfast resulted in improved tests scores, grades and attendance, Uhl says disciplinary referrals and referrals to the nurse were down: "It just seems like a win-win situation." Uhl says national studies show eating breakfast actually starts up a student's metabolism, burns calories and cuts down on obesity. It's when students get hungry and go into fat-storing mode that their metabolisms decrease and actually cause more fat gain, he says.

"We trying to infuse more fruit," Uhl says, adding that the district still has to stay in budget and that oranges, for instance, are more expensive than bananas (kids get one banana a week).

Hair Balls is interested in hearing from anyone else on the Breakfast in the Classroom subject -- on either side of the issue -- and invites you to post comments below.

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