‘Breakfast after the bell’ signed into law
Will provide easier access to school breakfasts
WITHIN THE NEXT two years, it will become much easier for an estimated 150,000 low-income children in Massachusetts to eat breakfast in school.
Gov. Charlie Baker on Tuesday signed a bill dubbed “Breakfast After the Bell,” which will require high poverty schools to offer breakfast after the start of the school day.
“We have too many students that arrive at school hungry,” said Rep. Alice Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat and House Chair of the Education Committee. “If you’re not having breakfast available after the bell for those students, they go through until lunch time without food, and that obviously interferes with their ability to fully participate in the academic side of school.”
The federal government reimburses schools for providing low-income students with free or reduced-price meals. But although around 300,000 students in low-income schools are eligible for subsidized breakfast – and Massachusetts requires schools to offer it – fewer than half those students actually get breakfast. In contrast, a similar lunch program has 80 to 90 percent participation rates.
Bill supporters say the reason for the low participation rate is that school breakfast is often offered in the cafeteria before school starts. There may be stigma to eating breakfast in school and students can have trouble showing up early, whether because of bus schedules or unreliable transportation.
The new law, which will go into effect for the school year beginning in 2022, will require all public K-12 schools where 60 percent or more students are eligible for free or reduced price meals to offer breakfast after the start of the school day. There are about 600 schools that fit this criteria, and Catherine Drennan, communications director for the Greater Boston Food Bank, said between 300 and 400 of them already offer some form of breakfast after the start of the school day.
The schools could offer any one of several options – breakfast in the classroom, grab-and-go options, or “second-chance” breakfast, where breakfast is offered during a break between classes.
“It’s a model that has been proven to increase participation in school breakfast and increase access to school breakfast, particularly among low-income students,” said Drennan. According to Project Bread, one school in Salem that adopted Breakfast After the Bell in 2019 had 24 percent of students eating breakfast in school before the switch and 65 percent afterwards.
Massachusetts is the 13th state to adopt a breakfast after the bell program, according to the Food Research and Action Center.
The meal costs should be fully covered by the federal government. A program lets high-poverty schools obtain “community eligibility,” which means the federal government reimburses the district for all meals served, not only those to poor students. The 60 percent poverty threshold is meant to ensure that any district covered by the state mandate is eligible to be fully reimbursed.
Lawmakers said school districts that increase student participation rates to 80 percent or higher stand to gain a total of $25 million in federal money.
In the bill’s final version, implementation was pushed off to 2022 – earlier versions had started it in 2021 – to give schools time to get through the pandemic-related upheaval.
Supporters of the bill cite research showing that students who eat a healthy breakfast get better grades, go to the nurse less often, and miss school less frequently. “We know from research and from personal experience that when you’re hungry, you’re not going to concentrate, you’re not going to be able to focus on work,” said Rep. Aaron Vega, a Holyoke Democrat who sponsored the bill.
A school can obtain a waiver from the new law if its current model of providing breakfast has more than 80 percent participation or if it can demonstrate “an extreme hardship to implementation.”The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education decided during the last legislative session that if schools offer breakfast for 15 minutes in the classroom, that can be counted as learning time.