When it comes to breakfast, city public schools are having a little difficulty getting kids on board. Although breakfast in New York City is free, there are still many factors that play a role in this breakfast contempt — primarily tardiness and, of course, taste buds.
But a new educational budget approved by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last month could be a gamechanger.
“Sometimes I watch kids eat one thing from their tray and then they just throw the whole meal away,” said Angel Almestica, an education assistant at P.S. 24-Spuyten Duyvil, who spends each school morning supervising children eating — and not eating — their breakfast.
Yet, despite it being a continuing trend across the state, skipping breakfast is something these students cannot afford to do. Hunger Free America says more than 700,000 children live in households that sometimes cannot afford food.
About half of New York state children are eligible for federally subsidized school lunches — including breakfast — but most children don’t take advantage of it for a number of reasons — like their bus not arriving in time for kids to get to the cafeteria, long lines, rushing to class, and the stigma that breakfast is only for the “poor kids.”
Just 32 percent of the state’s 1.6 million students who are qualified actually had breakfast at school last year, according to a state public schools report. In addition, only about half of the participants actually ate the breakfast put in front of them.
Cuomo’s No Student Goes Hungry initiative mimics schools’ lunch structure, but brings it into the world of breakfast. Lunch is typically more successful at schools primarily because it’s scheduled within the school day, according to the non-profit Hunger Solutions.
This is known as the school breakfast gap, which describes the disparity between breakfast and lunch participation.
As a result, Cuomo’s initiative includes the “Breakfast After the Bell” program, which serves breakfast within the classroom.
As someone who works with children in both the lunchroom and the classroom, Almestica sees first hand the difference in children when they eat in the mornings.
“They engage better,” he said. “If you give kids unhealthy food, or they’re hungry, they are not going to produce, and they lose interest.”
Almestica makes an effort to make breakfast enjoyable, but in between making students giggle, he also ensures they understand the importance of eating in the morning.
When Almestica was first assigned to breakfast, there were about 30 children who came regularly.
“Now it’s up to 70, 80 kids here,” he said. “Maybe it’s me talking to them, but every month we see a new face and I try to work with them in a special way. And maybe they’re telling their friends, and they’re telling their friends, and it’s spreading.”
With Cuomo’s initiative in place, it could be easier for students to participate in breakfast, getting access to the nutrition they need. However like 12th century English dramatist John Heywood once said, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can not make it drink.”
In this case, Heywood may have meant children. And it’s not water going untouched, but typical breakfast food like pancakes.
“There’s certain things the kids don’t like,” Almestica said. “The kids may criticize how things taste. The only reason the kids eat the strawberries we give them is because they think that because the strawberries are frozen, it’s an ‘icy’” treat.
Almestica has proposed what he describes as a fun lecture program teaching kids about the benefits of eating in the morning and the difference it makes in their learning. He also suggests giving kids incentives and awards for the ones that finish their food.
“If they know why they’re eating it,” Almestica said, “it’ll help.”