Pa. school breakfast is free for all, but whether students eat it depends on the delivery
At North Hills Middle School, students are greeted by a “grab-and-go” breakfast cart the moment they get off the bus.
Thanks to Pennsylvania’s universal breakfast program, all of the food offered at the kiosk — from fruit and muffins, to eggs and milk — is free to students, regardless of income.
It’s a scene state officials hope is being repeated in schools statewide: the state budget includes a $46.5 million increase to provide free breakfasts to all Pennsylvania school children this school year — roughly 1.7 million kids.
Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, has touted the new funds at multiple press events around the state.
“Universal free breakfast puts every kid on the same playing field, gives every kid that opportunity to succeed,” he said in an August visit to Penn Hills Elementary.
Numerous studies show eating breakfast at school can help boost student concentration and comprehension, reduce the risk of food insecurity and ensure students get the vitamins and minerals they need.
However, schools have historically struggled to feed all kids who are eligible for the breakfast program. Only 52 students participate in breakfast for every 100 that participate in school lunch nationwide, according to a report from the 2021-22 school year.
At North Hills, participation in the breakfast program has nearly tripled since the universal free breakfast program went into effect. But free breakfast can be harder to get to kids because they might be arriving at school late, or without enough time to make it to the cafeteria and sit down for a meal.
“We're learning a lot of it is administrative support — making sure that kids have enough time if they are late running, that they are encouraged to take your time, go eat breakfast, get a good start to the day,” said Lindsay Radzvin, North Hills’ director of food service.
Successful ways to increase the number of kids eating breakfast include “grab and go” mobile carts like the kind offered at North Hills, “second chance breakfast” that can be eaten after the homeroom bell rings, and delivering breakfast to classrooms and allowing them to eat in the class during homeroom period, according to Jamie Baxter, executive director of Pittsburgh-based advocacy group Allies for Children.
These models are “basically incorporating breakfast into the school day,” said Chelsey Novak, manager of child nutrition programs for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. “I would encourage — if schools are not using one of these options — to look into it and see if it might be a good fit for them,” Novak said.
Keystone Oaks food service director Kevin Lloyd said just as teachers fight to ensure students have adequate instruction time, he’s fighting to make sure they have enough time to be fed.
On a good day, students would have 20 minutes to eat, but late buses and other deterrents often cut the time students have to eat breakfast in half. The district also has a policy that restricts mealtime to the school cafeteria as a safety precaution for kids who have severe allergies.
“That is our biggest handicap,” Lloyd said. “Because it's not cool to eat in the cafeteria. The kids want to go to the gym or have some recreational or social time, and they would choose that over going to the cafeteria to eat, unfortunately.”
On average the district has seen 319 of its roughly 1,900 students participate in the breakfast program on any given day this month, compared to 216 daily participation last year. Lloyd said he’ll try to incentivize more students to eat breakfast at the school by offering “creative menuing” — hot chocolate in the winter, smoothies when it’s warmer out.
Kids attending Pittsburgh Public Schools and some other high-poverty districts were previously all already eligible for universal free meals. (If at least 40% of students at a school would qualify for free or reduced-price meals, the school has the option to offer free meals to all students under a federal policy known as the “Community Eligibility Provision.”) Breakfast was also free for all kids last school year because of some leftover state food and nutrition funds – however, that was one-time funding.
At Baldwin-Whitehall School District, in Pittsburgh’s South Hills, district officials made breakfast free for all elementary school students prior to the pandemic.
“We were not having the participation rate that we wanted,” said Randal Lutz, the district’s superintendent. “Kids were hungry. Kids would qualify for the meal. They simply weren't accessing the meal. And so we started to really ask questions as to why.”
The district ended up with a breakfast-in-the classroom model, Lutz said. The effort was successful in getting more kids to eat, though it did take buy-in from teachers and other staff to make it work.
“A food service program cannot and does not operate in isolation,” he said, noting the change required adjusting bus times and classroom cleaning.
Lutz said he hopes free school meals will come to be viewed as part of the school experience the same way paper, pencils, computers, or books are.
“We would never think that kids in public schools have to buy their textbooks,” he said.
The effort to increase school breakfast participation has picked up momentum nationwide since pandemic-era free meal rules expired. Eight states have permanently adopted programs that make breakfast and lunch free for all students.
But Crystal FitzSimons of the Food Research and Action Center noted that the success of such programs depends on whether districts take the steps necessary to ensure students can access those meals.
“I'm not sure that every student will ever participate in the school breakfast program, and that's okay,” FitzSimons said. “The secret, I think, is to make sure that every child is able to access school breakfast if they want to.”