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Student breakfast program a success

Deanna Hight mans the new “grab-n-go” breakfast cart at South Portland High School, a self-sustaining program that has been deemed a success after its first pilot year in getting more students started on the school day fueled up and ready to learn. (Duke Harrington photo)

SOUTH PORTLAND — Schools nationwide have long touted the importance of a good breakfast in giving students a positive start to their day. South Portland High School is no different, but officials have found that it’s not always enough to simply offer a healthy morning meal, even at free or reduced prices.

“Even though the cafeteria is only about 1,000 feet from the main entrance, we found students who arrived at school, even though they had not yet had breakfast were not always bothering to take advantage of it,” said the school department’s food services director, Martha Spencer. “Kids come and go and sometimes just that little bit down the hall is too much for them, because they’re just barely making it in time for their first class, anyway.”

But according to Katie Pazienza, an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer working for the Maine Hunger Initiative program run by Portland’s Preble Street resource center, there are social factors at play that make it uncool to hit the cafeteria in the morning.

“It is not enough to simply offer breakfast,” she said. “A stigma has arisen where the kids who must eat breakfast at school in the morning are viewed as poor, versus those who can choose to socialize with their friends during that time. At the Maine Hunger Initiative, we work with schools to implement ‘Alternative Breakfast Models’ — ways of offering breakfast in which all students are encouraged to eat even when breakfast comes after the bell rings.”

To that end, Spencer decided the best solution was to make breakfast just too convenient to pass up, by placing it right in the path between the school’s front door and the stairwell that leads up to South Portland High School classrooms, and to staff it with someone she’d knew had a knack for building a rapport with each teen that passes by.

Last year, Spencer applied for a $4,000 grant from Full Plates, Full Potential, an anti-student-hunger organization led by former state senator Justin Alfond. That money was used to purchase a food cart that, since last fall, meets students at the front door, with full meals and healthy snacks they can “grab-n-go” on their way to class.

Use of the cart has added about 50 breakfasts per day to the school’s morning menu, based on tracking of full meals dispensed at free and reduced prices, a tally taken to get coverage of the subsidy from the federal government.

“That may not seem like a lot, but what a lot of students get is not a full meal – which has to have all of the components to count for reimbursement – but what we call a la cart,” Spencer said. “But still, they’re all healthy snacks, and it gives these kids something to have in their bodies to fuel their brains as they get to their first or second period class, so they can get there ready to learn.”

“In all, I serve between 65 and 80 kids per day, and for the most part that’s kids who tell me they would have gone without and just tried to make it until lunch, or whatever,” said Deanna Hight, who mans the cart from 7 a.m. until first bell, returning for a second shift that lasts until 9 a.m. to catch tardy students and those passing by on the way to their second class. During that time, Hight moves her cart around the front lobby area to capture maximum interest, from the front door, to the office door where students must check in after the school day starts and outer doors lock, to the bottom of the main stairwell for the last few stragglers between classes.

“The fact that this is available us so important,” said Preble Street Advocacy Director Jan Bindas-Tenny. “Maine is third in the nation in terms of childhood hunger, with one in four children experiencing food insecurity. That means that 25 percent of Maine students may not have access at all to breakfast at home.”

“Full Plates is funded all through private fundraising, and most of the money goes right out to the schools for things like this, which is part of our ‘breakfast-after-thebell’ program,” Bindas-Tenny said.

A bill to fund breakfast after the bell programs for schools that have more than 50 percent low-income students, as measured by those who qualify for free or reduced-price meals, passed both houses of the state legislature June 1. That would not apply to SPHS. Kaler and Skillin Elementary schools are the only two in South Portland at that threshold.

Still, South Portland High School officials agree, the secret ingredient in their program, something no other school testing breakfast after the bell can boast, is Hight.

Although she works just a few hours per week, Hight has direct contact with as many students every day as any person on the high school staff, and she meets each one with a warm, beaming smile.

That emotional nourishment, vice principal Kimberly Bennett said, is just as important as the starter calories Hight sells.

“Students like the one-on-one time they get with Deanna in the mornings and I think some actually prefer to go to the cart instead of the cafeteria for that reason,” Bennett said. “Deanna knows the kids so well. She greets them by name and often knows their choices and asks them if they want their ‘usual.’ The relationship and connection kids have with Deanna, and the rest of our cafeteria staff, is wonderful.”

“I just love all of the kids,” said Hight, a South Portland High School grad who now lives in Scarborough. “You don’t know what someone’s home life is like, so, even though I may only have two minutes of interaction with a student, I try to be positive and really fill that moment, to give them a friendly ear at the start of their day, to try and let them know just be being here to serve them that they are cared for.

“Feeding students with both good food and supportive relationships leads to better results,” said Superintendent Ken Kunin.

Whether or not the morning meal and support from Hight has resulted in better grades is hard to say. But one measure has been taken.

“The school nurse tells be she has definitely seen a decrease in the number of kids coming to her office since we started this,” Spencer said.

“That’s because kids end up in the nurses office because they haven’t eaten and just don’t feel well,” Bindas-Tenny said. “As we’ve pushed these types of programs, we’ve found more and more teachers, too, getting on board with letting students bring these morning meals they get on the go into the classroom. It ends up actually being less of a distraction. It’s not rocket science. When kids are hungry they can’t focus on what they are supposed to be doing in school.”

It helps also, Spencer said, that South Portland High School, has a strong recycling and composting program.

“Kids are trained in that right from their first day here as a freshman, so you don’t see a lot of trash lying around,” Spencer said.

The good news is that the program is self-sustaining. Sales needed to be strong enough to support the extra 90 minutes the breakfast cart added to Hight’s schedule each day. As it turned out, the student reaction was enough to assure Spencer that the alternative breakfast program will be a permanent part of South Portland High School life.

“We knew that within a month,” Spencer said. “It absolutely will be back next year. If not, the kids would have a fit.”

And that’s fine with Hight.

“I absolutely love what I do,” she said. “It’s my favorite job I’ve ever had.”

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@inthesentry.com.