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.”

survey says

More bullying reported at New York City schools, study shows

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

More New York City students say there is bullying in their schools, a report released Monday showed. The findings also revealed that many schools reporting the greatest number of violent incidents on campus have no social workers on staff.

The report was commissioned by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Stringer also released an audit of how school safety matters are recorded, and concluded that the education department should provide more oversight and streamline incident reporting rules.

“The audit found clear breakdowns in communication in the reporting and tracking of incidents and actions taken,” according to a press release from Stringer’s office.

The education department disputed some of the comptroller’s findings, and in a written statement, spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote: “We have detailed protocols in place to ensure allegations of bullying are immediately reported, investigated and addressed, and are investing in both anti-bullying initiatives and mental health supports.”

But the pair of reports raises scrutiny of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s school discipline reforms, which favor  “restorative” practices that emphasize mediation over punishment, and make it harder to suspend students.

Advocates of the de Blasio reforms say the shift is necessary because black and Hispanic students are more likely to be arrested or disciplined at school. Research has shown such disciplinary action can lead to higher dropout rates. Critics of the reforms, meanwhile, say the changes have created more chaotic schools.

The findings are also likely to add to a chorus of parents and elected officials who say more emotional supports are needed for the city’s most vulnerable students. Students who experience a mental health crisis during the school day may be handcuffed and shuttled to hospitals. The city’s latest budget, which was approved last week, includes an additional $2 million to hire social workers and guidance counselors in schools that currently don’t have any.

Here are some highlights from the reports.

More students report there is bullying in their schools — but the data comes with a catch.

Last year, the education department’s annual survey showed that 82 percent of students said their peers “harass, bully, or intimidate others in school.” That’s up year over year, and up significantly from 65 percent of students in 2012, which was the lowest rate recorded since at least 2010. (De Blasio’s discipline reforms started to take effect around 2015.)

A note about these numbers: Prior to 2017, the survey asked whether students harass, bully or intimidate other students none, some, most, or all of the time. The most recent survey responses were slightly different: none of the time, rarely, some of the time, or most of the time — a change that may have artificially inflated the bullying numbers.

That’s enough to render the survey data unreliable said Max Eden, a researcher who has studied school climate for the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute — a critic of the mayor’s discipline reforms. Still, taken with other findings, it’s reasonable to think that bullying is on the rise at city schools, he said.

Among the other evidence: A first-of-its-kind report, released this month under a new city law, that showed substantiated bullying incidents are on track to increase this year.

Schools that log the most violent incidents often lack mental health supports.

Guidance counselors and social workers are key when it comes to creating safe schools because they can help address the root cause of violent or troublesome behavior, advocates who want more mental health supports say.

But many of the city’s neediest schools go without that help.

Of the schools reporting the most violent incidents on campus, 36 percent lack a full-time social worker, the comptroller found. On campuses where there are social workers, caseloads are a staggering 700 to one. That far exceeds the recommended ratio from the National Association of Social Workers of 250 general education students per social worker — and it’s higher than the citywide average of 612 students per social worker, according to the comptroller.

The comptroller’ compares that to the ratio of New York Police Department school safety agents who are placed in schools: There is one safety agent per 228 students, according to the report.

“Our city is failing to meet the social and emotional needs of our students,” Councilman Mark Treyger, of Brooklyn, who has pushed the city to report more up-to-date bullying data and to hire more school counselors, said in an emailed statement.

Schools may be underreporting violent incidents, something the education department disputes.

In a separate audit, the comptroller compared logs kept by school safety agents to incident reports filed by school leaders. In 21 percent of cases, incidents that were noted by safety agents were not reflected in the school reports.

The school data, in turn, are used to report incidents to the state for its Violent and Disruptive Incident Report, or VADIR. The discrepancy could raise questions about the already-controversial reporting system. (VADIR has been criticized for classifying schoolyard incidents as serious offenses, and the state has tweaked its definitions in response to those kinds of concerns.)

This finding also comes with some caveats. The comptroller looked at only 10 schools — a tiny sample of the city’s portfolio of about 1,800. And the education department took issue with the methodology.

In its response to the audit, education department officials said that the police data doesn’t align with the state’s reporting categories, and that the information may not be comparable because of student privacy concerns and recordkeeping issues on campuses where multiple schools share a building.  

Student Voices

What would these students tell newly trained teachers? ‘Be woke’

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Freedom Prep student Destiny Dangerfield talks alongside Asiah Hayes, Detario Yancey, and Evan Walsh at a panel discussion for TFA Memphis trainees.

Respect for others, being resourceful, and confronting biases are among the lessons four high-school-age students wanted to convey during a panel discussion for future Teach for America participants.

Teach for America Memphis trains recent college graduates and places them in local classrooms for two years, with the goal of developing leaders who will commit to educational equity. Earlier this month, TFA Memphis kicked off its Summer Institute, welcoming 153 new trainees. Created in 2006, the group now has over 400 alumni working in local schools. 

High-schoolers Asiah Irby, Evan Walsh, Destiny Dangerfield, and Detario Yancey shared their personal stories with about 200 corps members, directors, and alumni last week. When these students enrolled in Freedom Preparatory Academy and KIPP Memphis Collegiate Schools, it marked a turning point for them. Both schools are charters that hire many program grads.

“We wanted kids that embody so much of what we hope for for all of our students,” said Athena Palmer, executive director of TFA Memphis. “What were the key moments along the way” in their educations?

Based on interviews and the panel discussion, here’s what the students thought first-time teachers should know:

Tell us you won’t tolerate bullying. And mean it.

Destiny Dangerfield wants to be a federal prosecutor, or a civil rights attorney, or perhaps a performer one day. These are lofty goals for any student, but they once seemed unreachable for Dangerfield. Her father, a musician, packed his bags before she started middle school.

“That took a really huge toll on me because that was when I was starting to be introduced to a whole lot more boys,” she said. “Having him walk out on me did a number on my self-worth and self-image and I saw myself as little to nothing.”

School for Dangerfield was supposed to be a safe haven. But that wasn’t always the case. Sometimes, she said, an act as simple as momentarily stepping out of the classroom could affect a student’s safety.

“In reality, that two minutes could be the difference between a child getting in a fight or being talked about or ganged up on,” she said. “Be articulate that you won’t tolerate bullying of any kind. And show them that that’s not an empty threat and that you mean business.”

A safe community of friends and classmates helped Dangerfield get through school. Now, she wants her circle to learn to use their voices to make change, even though she feels people like her are misunderstood and often neglected.

“I want to see more investments within our city.…” she said. “I feel like Memphis has so much to offer … no one has the chance to see our potential.”

The classroom is where teachers can start to grow that potential. But one of her teachers didn’t, and that sticks with her today.

“I don’t want to be talked to like I’m 2 years old when I’m 17,” she said. “I will respect you no matter what, but I want to feel respected in the process.”

Open up. Everyone is nervous on the first day, including us.

In ninth grade, Evan Walsh listened while a faculty member told his parents, “He’s not up to the academic rigor of this school.” The meeting lasted five minutes, and he left unenrolled.

“When a student is in an environment where they feel like the people around them couldn’t care less about their education or what they do in life or what happens to them, you get the unfortunate situation that a lot of students are in right now,” he said, referring to two of his former classmates who lost their lives to violence in the city.

For Walsh, who spent his life moving from place to place, first times were frequent. Creating a bond with students in awkward moments can create lasting relationships, he said.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Corps members talk to and hug participants Evan Walsh and Detario Yancey after the discussion.

“Don’t be scared,” he said. “We’re all human. We can all be scared. Understand like, we’re just as nervous as you are, especially on the first day.”

With the help of a former assistant principal who had a son in the school, Walsh found his way to KIPP, where his GPA shot from a 2.5 to a 3.6. In May, Walsh graduated summa cum laude, and he was the first from his school to apply for early decision and be accepted into the college of his dreams: Franklin and Marshall in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Still, he thinks of his two classmates and their dreams deferred.

“I’m a strong believer in thinking that violence and poverty is a cycle, and the way to break through some of it is with education,” he said. “I was lucky enough to have family and people around me that recognized the value of education.”

Expect only the most out of us – we’re smarter than you think.

In the rocky years that followed first grade, Asiah Irby found herself caught in a custody battle. Because her mother took care of her, she now wants to return the favor.

“‘That kind of shaped me into the person I am today,” she said. “Even when I’m at my lowest, I still push myself to do my best and be better. I just want what’s best for me and my family.”

When Irby thinks of excellence, she thinks of a poster that was on her English teacher’s wall: “I won’t insult your intelligence by giving you easy work.”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Incoming corps members clap for students during panel discussion.

“Coming into a classroom seeing stuff like that just made me know that he cared and that being in his class, I was safe to just learn and try and fail and succeed,” she said.

But she hasn’t always been so lucky. Irby’s worst experience was when she switched teachers in the middle of the year, leaving her with an F grade in the class. Her new teacher didn’t have high expectations for her.

“He was white and kind of privileged, and he would make comments in class that were kind of racist and sexist,” she said. “I want to be something in life, and I don’t want anybody to tell me that I can’t be anything.”

Irby is now a rising senior at Freedom Preparatory Academy, where she raised her ACT score from a 23 to a 27 in one year, enough to get into highly ranked schools such as Syracuse and the University of Texas. And Irby won’t settle for anything less. Success for Irby means leaving a path that students like her younger sister can follow.

“I want to do what I can to make sure that she does better than I do,” Irby said. “My dream for Memphis is for kids that look like me to get experiences that kids who don’t look like me get.”

Teaching is about developing your ‘mommy instinct.’

At home, Detario Yancey’s parents gave him a stable life. But at his failing elementary school, resources were scant, and Yancey’s grades suffered.

“I felt like I was behind,” he said. “I felt like I had a lot of potential locked up in a door, but somebody had to unlock it.”

Yancey enrolled at KIPP in the fifth grade, eating his lunch during tutoring as he worked to recover his grades. Being a teacher in a school this rigorous requires a kind of finesse and quick wit – almost like a “mommy instinct,” he said.

“You want to make your children feel as safe as possible,” he said. “They may not have that love at home. They may not be feeling that love from their peers. Find a creative way to make them feel loved and safe.”

Now, the recent graduate prides himself on representing his class as president and valedictorian.

“I want to see underprivileged kids like me surpass expectations,” he said. “The system is in place for us to fail. I want to see us live to beat those systems down.”

In the weeks ahead, TFA’s incoming corps members will teach summer school at Memphis Business Academy before receiving their assignments for the new school year.

Yancey left them with one last bit of advice: “Be creative, be intuitive, be socially intelligent – and be woke.”