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Friday, February 27, 2009

When a poptart for breakfast is actually a very good thing

I don't think that I've announced it here, but since December, I've been on the board of Healthy Schools Campaign. This is such a phenomenal organization, and I am thrilled to be a part of it.

Anyway, as many of you know, Dylan goes to our local neighborhood school. It is a Chicago Public School, so we face many, many hurdles in terms of funding, resources, etc. Actually, we face more hurdles than some of the schools, because our neighborhood is relatively affluent. The amount of funding provided to the schools is based on the number of students whose families are below the poverty line. That said, we don't get much funding and rely on fundraisers to keep programs going. I'm not complaining though. Sure, I'd love to have more money funneling into our school, but we are happy to contribute. It's still way less than private school, and I feel good about the support that we provide. As I said, many (NOT all) of the families in our neighborhood do pretty well, so it makes sense that more of the financial burden fall on us.

But, being part of this school's community can sometimes make me forget that our situation is so much different than that faced by others in the city of Chicago. I went to a breakfast for the Healthy Schools Campaign this morning, and some of the statistics that were shared were startling. For example, only 20% of Chicago Public Schools have recess. And most of those schools have primarily white populations. (Note: Dylan's school DOES have recess, but it is only 15 minutes or so.)

We also spent a lot of time talking about school breakfast. All of the schools offer breakfasts (and these are subsidized for students who can't afford them), but most students don't participate in the program. This occurs for a number of reasons. It's hard for some parents to get kids to school that early. It's not a priority for some parents. I'm guessing that there's also a stigma to arriving early for breakfast.

The solution that was shared with us this morning is called Universal Breakfast in the Classroom. It's free breakfast for ALL students (regardless of household income). It's eaten in the classroom (not the cafeteria). We heard some heartbreaking commentary from teachers who were stunned at how hungry these children were each morning. Kids are not getting enough food at home and need this breakfast. It was an eye-opening morning for me.

That said, I couldn't help but feel a bit judgmental about some aspects of the program. Namely, breakfast in the classroom yields SO MUCH WASTE. Eggs are served in styrofoam bowls with plastic spoons. Cereal comes in a plastic cup with a small carton of milk. Muffins are in plastic wrap. In most schools, each child's breakfast is in an individual paper bag. At the end of breakfast, all waste is put into big black garbage bags and thrown out. I was also a little taken aback by some of the offerings. One of the menu items was pop tarts. Not too nutritious.

BUT (and this is truly a huge but), these kids are not getting enough to eat at home. I think we can all agree that a pop tart is so, so much better than having nothing at all. It was just so heartbreaking, though. I spend all this energy worrying about the quality of the food at my daughter's school. Feeling guilt over the disposable containers in her lunchbox. And in reality? There are kids who never have a parent pack them a lunchbox at all. There are kids who have the choice of eating a pop tart or eating nothing. There are kids who are hungry all weekend, all spring break, all SUMMER, because they have no school breakfast or school lunch to rely upon.

I'm so proud to be part of Healthy Schools Campaign. Maybe one day, if we all work hard enough, we can go back to worrying about the nutritionals of the pop tart and the wastefulness of the styrofoam bowl. Until then, I'm going to swallow my petty concerns and focus on helping kids get food in their bellies. Because that's another stat we heard this morning. Without food to eat, children can't learn. And that's just a travesty.

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