- The Washington Times - Monday, January 23, 2006

BALTIMORE (AP) — The city’s public schools will soon expand their free-breakfast program, offering a morning meal to all students in elementary and middle schools.

Already, 116 of Baltimore’s elementary and middle schools offer free breakfast to all pupils, regardless of family income. The remaining 39 schools will join the program Feb. 1.

“It’s very hard to focus on learning your ABCs or your multiplication tables when your stomach’s growling because you didn’t leave the house with a proper breakfast,” Mayor Martin O’Malley told the Baltimore Sun.

Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat running for governor, is touting the breakfast initiative as a campaign promise fulfilled. When Mr. O’Malley ran for mayor in 1999, his platform for the city’s public schools included making school breakfasts more easily available.

“Being poor doesn’t mean you don’t have the ability to succeed,” the mayor said. “But nutrition plays into it.”

School system officials say each elementary and middle school will have a “Breakfast Club,” featuring meals with community mentors and other activities to encourage children to come early and eat. Schools will also expand their breakfast menus in an attempt to make them more appetizing.

The changes are meant to increase turnout for breakfast, which remains low. While 64,000 of 87,000 city students are eligible to receive a federally subsidized breakfast, fewer than a third eat the meal each day, school officials said.

Universal free breakfast is also intended to make poor children more comfortable — removing the stigma of having to tell a cafeteria worker, in front of their peers, that they eat free.

Charlotte Williams, principal of Glenmount Elementary/Middle, one of the schools that has not had universal free breakfast, is hoping the initiatives will cut down on children’s tardiness and improve their nutritional habits.

“Maybe if they know they’re going to have something good, they’ll be a little more excited to get here early,” she said.

Currently, about 70 of the 800 pupils at her school eat breakfast there.

Research overwhelmingly shows that pupils who eat breakfast have fewer discipline problems, do better in school and have lower rates of obesity.

The cost of the program to Baltimore is minimal, because the school is reimbursed by the federal government for the vast majority of the meals it serves, school officials said.

Children from poor families are eligible to receive federally subsidized free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches from their schools.

Nationally, 44 percent of children who eat subsidized lunches also take advantage of the breakfast offer, according to a new report by the D.C.-based Food Research and Action Center (FRAC).

That number is more than double what it was 15 years ago, when only 20 percent of eligible children ate breakfast at school. “The numbers are much too low, but they’re going in the right direction,” said Jim Weill, president of FRAC.

Yasmiyn Gilmore, a 10-year-old fifth-grader, eats breakfast every day at Collington Square School in East Baltimore, and she recently learned about the consequences of skipping her morning meal.

“My head started to hurt, and my teacher sent me to the nurse,” she said.

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