starting the day right

Some parents question health of school breakfast, but change is slow

One of the products served in Denver's "breakfast in the classroom" program.

The “Frudel,” a pastry with apple or cherry filling, is not the only food that has rankled a group of Denver Public Schools parents — but it may be the best example of what they say are an excess of sugary, processed foods served through the district’s expanding breakfast-in-the-classroom program.

The Frudels have 11 grams of sugar and are served warm inside blue plastic wrappers emblazoned with a smiling Pillsbury Dough Boy. Parents describe how some of the children in the Pre-K classroom jump up and down with excitement on Frudel day, gobbling up school breakfast even after parents take pains to serve a full breakfast at home. They say the food is placed within easy reach of the four-year-olds, so it’s almost inevitable that children take it even if they’ve already eaten or their parents want them to pass.

“I’ve been seeing the gooeyness and dessertiness of the things being served in my child’s classroom,” said Anne Davis, whose daughter attends the central Denver elementary school where about eight parents have raised concerns. (The parents didn’t want the name used for fear it would reflect negatively on the school.) “It’s the perfect kid junk food.”

In addition to worries about spiking blood sugar and subsequent behavior problems, parents are frustrated by their children’s untouched lunches and a sudden new interest in junk food.

And while the parents who have raised concerns are financially secure, they say the low-income children that breakfast-in-the classroom programs are designed to feed are not well-served either.

“Nutritionally it fails, and then as far as equaling out the playing field for kids. It’s putting them more at a disadvantage than helping them,” said Heather Ramirez, whose son is in a Pre-K class at the school. “It’s disadvantaging the disadvantaged.”

Currently, about 60 Denver schools, many with large majorities of low-income students, offer breakfast in the classroom, which is free to all students. Others will add the program next fall when Colorado’s new “Breakfast After the Bell” law takes effect. The law, signed last May, will require schools where 80 percent or more students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals to offer breakfast after the official start of the school day. The 80 percent threshold will drop to 70 percent starting in the 2015-16 school year.

The recent complaints about breakfast in the classroom highlight the complicated logistics of the program, which requires everything from months-in-advance food bids to the daily delivery of thousands of meals to individual classrooms via trucks and insulated coolers.

The concerns also illustrate the push and pull between what kids will eat and what adults want them to eat.

Theresa Hafner, executive director of enterprise management for DPS, said parent opinions on food offerings are important. But, she said, “if the kids don’t eat it we’re not accomplishing our mission.”

A DPS staff member from the nutrition services department is set to meet with concerned parents in early March. For some of them, the problem with school breakfast is not purely nutritional. It’s about the message schools are sending to kids about what is good for them.

“Educationally speaking, it’s teaching some really bad food habits,” said Davis.

Several outside observers agree that the parents have valid concerns and are not alone in their frustration, but they also note that the DPS has been a leader in adopting scratch cooking in school cafeterias and making other healthy changes, particularly in the lunch program.

“DPS has a reputation for really being committed to improving their school meal program,” said Carol Muller, regional field manager for Colorado Action for Healthy Kids. “There is no quick answer to this. It is a long process.”

A closer look at the food

Besides the Frudels, parents have questioned DPS breakfast foods like Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal, glazed French toast, apple juice, and pre-packaged apple slices that are sometimes mealy. Not only do breakfasts generally include too much sugar and too many preservatives, parents say they include too few protein items and non-processed fruits and vegetables.

In addition, they say sometimes items like cheese sticks or yogurt are listed on school menus but do not show up in the classroom. Hafner said published menu items should be present but are occasionally absent because the product was recalled, the vendor ran out or a district manager made a mistake.

While DPS breakfast foods and ensembles all adhere to federal rules governing school meals, those rules do not require protein products or limit sugar specifically. They do require milk, one to two grain products and a half cup of fruit product each day. They also set minimum and maximum calorie amounts, limit saturated fat and prohibit transfat.

School breakfast resources

“It’s odd to me that there’s not a protein requirement for breakfast,” said Jeremy West, nutrition service director for Weld County District 6.

Cost is the main reason, said Anjali Budhiraja, public affairs specialist for the United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Services in the Mountain Plains region. When the new rules, which took effect last summer, were under consideration many food service directors commented that a protein requirement would make their breakfast programs too expensive.

Ann Pierce, a nutritionist who Ramirez knows, reviewed a week’s worth of school breakfasts based on a photographic log the concerned parents put together. The log included nutritional information for some items.

“It’s not terrible for what I’d expect from a public school, but it’s not great either,” said Pierce, who runs Pierce Whole Nutrition. Pierce said pastries, sugar cereals and juice are all worth eliminating from school breakfast menus, but she was happy to see fruit and sunflower seed butter on the menu sometimes.

“Sun butter is great. That’s a really good food to have in there,” she said.

The irony is that both parents and DPS food service staff agree that students don’t generally like the sun butter and often throw it out. Hafner said it is included because the prevalence of peanut allergies means peanut butter is off limits.

Menu additions that Pierce proposes include hard-boiled eggs, breakfast burritos with vegetables and beans, or even hummus and carrot sticks. Hafner said the district has served hard-boiled eggs as part of its after-school snack program and will consider doing so for breakfast. In addition, the district is currently testing a bean and cheese burrito, an egg and cheese pita and a “breakfast pizza.”

What other districts offer

Food service directors around the state consistently say hot scratch-cooked items are a tall order when it comes to breakfast in the classroom. Not only do they take time to make, package and deliver, proper temperature control throughout the distribution process can be tricky.

West said his district, which has 17 schools with classroom breakfast, offers a scratch-made hot entrée once a week on Fridays. His team starts preparing the Friday item, either a breakfast burrito or an egg and cheese sandwich, on Wednesday.

“It just takes time to do that,” he said.

West said districts seeking to offer hot breakfasts more frequently almost have to use more processed items. Currently, Weld 6 serves cold items, including cereal, yogurt, cheese sticks and breakfast bars, Monday through Thursday.

In Denver, the cinnamon roll, which is sweetened with apple sauce, is the only scratch-made item served during the three-week breakfast menu cycle. Time constraints are part of it. The other part, Hafner explained, is that a student survey last year indicated that items like scratch-made muffins were unpopular. Only 22 percent of students rated them “good,” whereas Frudels earned 66 percent approval.

In the Boulder Valley School district, which has breakfast in the classroom at four schools, the one weekly hot item is a breakfast burrito made by EVOL, which uses no artificial flavors, colors, preservatives or fillers. The rest of the week, the district serves items like bagels and cream cheese, muffins from Udi’s bakery, cheese sticks, yogurt, and cereals like multi-grain Chex.

“We’re not buying the Frudels, the Pop Tarty things,” said Ann Cooper, the district’s director of food services. “The cereals we use are very low sugar.”

Hafner said DPS doesn’t serve cereal with more than six grams of sugar. To compare, a serving of Kellogg’s Raisin Bran has 18 grams of sugar and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes has three grams of sugar.

In Jefferson County, which offers classroom breakfast at eight schools this year, items served include mini pancakes, mini waffles, breakfast burritos, pigs in a blanket, banana or zucchini bread, fresh fruit cut up by kitchen staff, and unsweetened apple sauce. None of the entrée items are scratch cooked.

Linda Stoll, the district’s executive director of Food and Nutrition Services, said just because food comes prepackaged, doesn’t mean it’s bad for you.

“There are different perspectives on what is healthy out there,” she said.

The next step

School food service directors, including Hafner, say parents can and should express their concerns to staff. Hafner noted that some of the problems cited by parents, including that breakfasts are placed on central tables or counters, don’t stem from food service dictates, but are simply classroom-level or school-level decisions.

As for issues directly related to the food service department, change probably won’t happen overnight.

“They may have a warehouse full of the stuff they’re serving now,” said Muller.

Bureaucratic procedures can also hinder rapid change. Stoll said she is already in the middle of the formal bid process for food purchases next year. That means by this spring, she will have many of next year’s meal items set. While re-bids are possible, she said it’s a time-consuming process.

“Parents sometimes think the food service director hasn’t listened, but that’s not true,” she said. “You can’t turn the Titanic on a dime.”

Hafner and others also say it’s imperative to strike a balance between healthy foods and foods kids like.

“You can’t get so healthy, they’re not going to eat something,” said West, who has led his district through a transition to mostly scratch cooking in the last few years.

He knows from personal experience that it takes time for kids to accept homemade foods when they’re familiar with processed food at school, and perhaps at home. He said when Weld District 6 quit using dehydrated potato flakes and began mashing red potatoes with the skin on, students were not happy.

“They were like, ‘What’s in that?’” he said. “For the first year, my elementary students just kind of looked at them on the plate.”

Now they love them, he said. It may be an argument for patience and baby steps as breakfast in the classroom evolves. And for concerned parents, that may be a palatable solution.

“They need to tweak the food,” said Ramirez. “I don’t think they need…to get rid of it.”

How I Help

Why this high school counselor asks students, ‘What do you wish your parents knew?’

Today, we launch a new series called “How I Help,” which features school counselors, social workers and psychologists across Colorado. It is a companion to our popular “How I Teach” and “How I Lead” series.

Through “How I Help,” we hope to give readers a glimpse into the professional lives of school staff members who often work behind the scenes but nevertheless have a big impact on the day-to-day lives of students.

Our first “How I Help” features Cassie Poncelow, a counselor at Poudre High School in Fort Collins. She was the 2016 Colorado School Counselor of the Year and is one of six finalists for the 2018 National School Counselor of the Year award.

Poncelow talked to Chalkbeat about how she creates a legacy of caring, what teens want their parents to know and why peer-to-peer mentoring is better than a social-emotional curriculum taught by adults.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school counselor?
I was incredibly fortunate to have many powerful educators shape my life in my time as a student, but none did more so than my school counselors. My counselor from high school remains a dear friend and mentor. I knew that I wanted to be a part of what is happening in education and loved the diversity of the school counselor job. They get to collaborate with so many different stakeholders, get to know students in really cool ways and be involved with so many aspects of making change.

Cassie Poncelow

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of.
Three years ago, we noticed that students were dropping out continuously because they were short on graduation credits and tired of taking the same classes over and over again. I worked with a team to create Opportunities Unlimited, which is a dropout recovery program for students ages 17-21 that is focused on GED completion and concurrent enrollment opportunities. A fifth cohort started this fall and the program has graduated 26 students in two years.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?
Our Ambassadors program is in many ways the backbone of our climate and culture at Poudre High School. This program trains 50 upperclassmen to mentor freshmen through a year-long curriculum that includes topics like stress management, suicide prevention and sexual assault. This mentoring model means that every freshman has an ambassador that is connecting with them for almost three hours each month. The ambassadors deliver comprehensive, peer-to-peer education that is far beyond and better than any social-emotional learning curriculum that counselors could facilitate. As the co-leader for this program, I also couldn’t live without the hope that this crew gives me. They are the best part of my job.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school(s) where you work?
I am grateful to work in a place and with people who see the vital role of school counselors and are eager to partner with them. In my time at Poudre High School we have added two new school counseling positions, further demonstrating our school’s belief in the work we do. I have worked at schools in the past that created a lot of systemic barriers to accessing school counselors and I think this was based on a misconception that we were a more frivolous part of services for students.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?
I often ask my students, “What do you wish your parents knew?” What I hear consistently is a plea for them to remember what it was like to be 16: How painful and awkward it was, how boys were all the rage and not getting invited somewhere really was the actual worst.

So, I advise parents to remember that. And remember that a lot of what they dealt with at 16 is even more complicated by the world our kids are experiencing. Social media wasn’t a reality when they were kids and our current students have never known a world where mass shootings haven’t happened often. I know it’s no, “I walked uphill both ways without shoes in the snow,” but this is a scary time to be student — different, but equally hard. Our kids need us to hear them in that. And believe that they can change it.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?
At my core, I think we all thrive on authentic relationships and I do whatever I can to create these with my students. I want each of my students to feel like I am truly in their corner and a champion not only of what they do but more so of who they are. I hope to not only live this, but to model it for my students in ways that inspire them to do the same.

This semester I have a freshman boy who was consistently skipping class (who knew gas station tacos were such a draw?) and failing multiple classes. His “consequence” is that he has to spend a period working on missing work in my office. I also have a slew of seniors who have made my office their home during this fifth hour, many who are excellent students and are just looking for a place to study. They have taken this freshman under their wing and are committed to his success far beyond what I could ever be. They are constantly asking about his upcoming exams, what he needs help with and celebrating his rising grades with him. I think I have built really authentic relationships with these upperclassmen who then remember what it means to feel connected and cared for and are passionate about showing this student just that. I often stress “legacy” to my students and this seems like a clear picture of that.

What is the hardest part of your job?
Kid stuff is hard. I hurt for kids a lot, as I think all educators do. They live lives far beyond our walls and far beyond what we could imagine and ever control. That’s the hardest. Close second would be trying to operate in a system that seems to be driven by folks who aren’t doing the work. I recognize that there are so many moving pieces and would love to have some of the actual “decision-makers” come spend the day in our role and better understand the work we do.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A year ago, I had a student who was really struggling with some significant mental health issues. I knew that we needed to bring in a parent but the girl was very anxious about this idea, to the point where she had literally crumpled up on my office floor. After calling her mom to meet with us, I joined her on the floor of my office to talk more. Her mom walked in shortly after, assessed the scene and sat right down on the floor with us, despite the chair-filled room. This move shifted everything and I was so grateful for her wisdom to be where her kid was at. It was a good reminder to me to do that always: be where kids are at.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?
A lot of my unwinding still includes my students as I announce volleyball games or attend other sporting events or performances. I love these opportunities because they let me see my kids in a different light and remind me how awesome they are. I also spend as much time outside as possible, whether it’s going for a quick hike with my pup or a bike ride. Beyond traveling and reading, I cheer hard for the CSU Rams! Go State!

Big money

Millions in grant dollars will bring more counselors to Indiana’s underserved students

KIPP Indy was one of several schools in the county to receive a counseling grant.

Scores of Indiana schools were awarded private grants that will allow them to bolster counseling services for students, many of whom are lacking help for an increasing portfolio of problems, including fallout from the state’s drug epidemic and basic needs like advice on college applications.

The $26.4 million in grants, decided last month, include six for Marion County districts and charter schools. They were awarded by Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy founded by key players in the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly.

The grants went to 52 school districts and five charter schools, covering about a third of the state’s counties. Based on enrollment, they ranged from about $68,000 to almost $3 million.

Lilly began its push to help schools build better counseling programs last year.

“The response from school corporations and charter schools far exceeded the Endowment’s expectations,” said Sara B. Cobb, the Endowment’s vice president for education. “We believe that this response demonstrates a growing awareness that enhanced and expanded counseling programs are urgently needed to address the academic, college, career, and social and emotional counseling needs of Indiana’s K-12 students.”

As Chalkbeat previously reported, school counselors have been stretched exceedingly thin in recent years, both in Indiana and across the country. On average, each Hoosier counselor is responsible for 630 students, making Indiana 45th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia for counselor-to-student ratios. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of no higher than one counselor for every 250 students.

So far, state-led efforts to expand counseling have fallen short; a bill proposed in 2015 to require a counselor in every school was withdrawn for further study, and the issue hasn’t resurfaced significantly in the legislature since. At the time, cost was the sticking point.

Schools and districts had to apply for the grants and show how they would use the money. Lilly reported that mental health and business partnerships, mentoring programs, improving curriculum and adding in more training for staff were all strategies that grant-winners have proposed.

Initially, 254 districts and charter schools applied, many pointing out how Indiana’s recent opioid crisis has increased social and emotional challenges for students. Counselors have to juggle those serious needs with college and career advising and, increasingly, responsibilities that have nothing to do with counseling, such as overseeing standardized tests.

Because of the level of interest, Lilly is planning a second round of grants, which would total up to $10 million.

“Because the implementation grant process was so competitive, the Endowment had to decline several proposals that had many promising features,” Cobb said. “We believe that with a few enhancements, many of these proposals will be very competitive in the second round of the Counseling Initiative.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Indianapolis Public Schools: $2,871,400
  • KIPP Indianapolis: $100,000
  • Lawrence Township: $1,527,400
  • Pike Township: $1,114,700
  • Neighborhood Charter Network: $68,312
  • Southeast Neighborhood School of Excellence: $99,870

IPS said in a news release that it planned to use the grant money to build counseling centers in each of the district’s high schools, which would begin operating in 2018 after IPS transitions to four high schools. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said counselors are “critical” for students as they prepare to graduate high school and pursue higher education and careers.

“We’re thrilled that the students and families we serve will benefit from this gift,” Ferebee said.