I don’t buy Cocoa Puffs. My son has been eating them at school as part of the free breakfast program. I am not happy about this.
For months, I have wrestled with what to do about school breakfast. At his school, children can arrive up to 30 minutes before classes begins and eat breakfast in the cafeteria for free. This is a half hour my son cherishes. He can sit with his friends and gab about Minecraft and Percy Jackson before all the being still and following directions begins.
I don’t mind getting him to school early for breakfast. It’s the food I have a problem with.
Kids can’t just come in and grab a carton of milk and a piece of fruit. According to regulations, each child in the breakfast line must take at least three food groups–that means a milk, yogurt, or cheese stick AND juice or a piece of fruit AND cold cereal or the hot item. On paper, this sounds okay.
I’ve seen some decent items, like scrambled eggs in tortillas. But in heavy rotation are also Trix yogurt and Cookie Crisp. The hot item is individually-packaged: sausage biscuit sandwiches, fruit pastries, and “strawberry splash” pancakes. The fruit is frequently whole oranges, which the kids used to throw away until we began the Fruit Ninja program earlier in the school year (read “Fruit Ninjas: A Simple School Wellness Program.“)
In short, it’s not a breakfast I feel good about–especially five days a week, every week, for nine months out of the year.
My son knows this. We talk about it. And I wrestle with it. Should I…
- not feed him a healthy breakfast at home if he’s going to eat a school breakfast, even though he’s hungry when he wakes up?
- ask that he take the sugary cereal and then throw it away uneaten?
- limit the added sugar he gets the rest of the day to make up for the load he gets in the morning?
- allow him to make his own choices and hope (as with the Cocoa Puffs) he grows tired of it?
- refuse to let him eat school breakfast entirely and take away one of his favorite social scenes of the day?
I’ve tried nearly all of these things. And finally, we brokered a deal: He can eat school breakfast two mornings a week.
As I was deciding on a compromise I could live with, I was struck by something: When parents feel like they have to protect their child from school food, something is wrong with our system.
I understand the value of free school breakfast. For some children in our school district, it may be the only breakfast they ever get. But for others, it’s an additional breakfast they simply don’t need. (The Lunch Tray wrote a good post about that here: “Universal Free Breakfast: Can We Feed Hungry Kids Without Overfeeding Affluent Kids?”.) And I think it’s safe to say that neither group of kids benefits from eating bowls of miniature cookies.
To be fair, the breakfast foods seem to be formulated to meet school stricter food guidelines: The pancakes are made with whole wheat flour, the Cookie Crisp is actually lower in sugar (7 grams per serving) than the same cereal on store shelves (9 grams), and some items contain natural food colors. But as I pore over the labels I’ve nabbed from my son’s tray after dropping him off, I also see Yellow 6, partially hydrogenated oils, and 29 ingredients in the “Real Fruit Apple Turnover”.
I have a meeting scheduled with our district’s food service director to find out if our school has any options, but I’ve already been warned: Make the offerings “less desirable”–like unsweetened cereal–and even hungry kids won’t take it. And of course there are big obstacles like budget. And only one employee to prepare and serve the food. And the lack of a full operating kitchen at the school, so food has to brought in prepackaged.
I will keep you posted on the results of my upcoming meeting. But in the meantime, I’d love to hear from you: Does your school offer free breakfast–and if so, what do they serve? And how do you handle it?