We are celebrating my niece’s graduation, and enjoying the long weekend with family in Colorado Springs. My sister-in-law works as a school counselor in Colorado and over the years we have discussed the challenges and issues she sees, especially those that tap into my particular interests involving food and nutrition. Within an hour of landing, she handed me a sample of “Breakfast Breaks”, basically a pile of trash she slyly snatched from a student who had finished his Breakfast after the Bell. The trash revealed a breakfast of 100% juice, Goldfish crackers and fruity Cheerios. Milk is also included. I gasped. Why are school districts being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by the federal government to serve every child a breakfast of highly refined sugar and starch?
Colorado boasts the lowest obesity rates in the country, but I’m wondering if a new state law could change all that. Gov. Hickenlooper signed HB13-1006 on May 15, 2013, paving the way for classrooms everywhere to feed all children “breakfast after the bell”. Proponents of the law state a growing problem of hunger in the classroom, and remind us that:
“Breakfast is critical to learning and health, and those experiencing hunger—estimated to be 22% of all children in Colorado—are more likely to exhibit behavioral, emotional and academic problems. Simply put, hungry kids cannot learn.”
WHAT TO DO ABOUT HUNGER IN THE CLASSROOM
Hunger remains a vexing problem for most school districts, but I am more than skeptical about Breakfast after the Bell. During the last two weeks of school this year, a pilot program at Soaring Eagles Elementary provided breakfast offering the children 53 grams of refined carbohydrate, with over 23 grams derived from sugar and a measly 2 grams of fiber, all prepackaged in their individual packages in a cellophane bag. My sister in law noted that most kids didn’t drink the milk that accompanied the “meal”, but were happy to snack on their treats regardless of whether they had already eaten or not.
MORE THAN A FEW CONCERNS ABOUT BREAKFAST AFTER THE BELL. Here’s the short list:
1. Just over 1 of 5 children come to school hungry, however proponents believe the system works best when all children are eating breakfast. I get that this arrangement minimizes stigma for the hungry children, but what happens to all the kids who have already eaten breakfast and are now happy to munch on the sweet snacks just because everyone else is eating? What lesson is being taught here?
2. What happens when parents balk? I would never support a program that fed my child almost 80% carbohydrate in the morning. The breakfast pack includes only 4 grams of protein. An 8 ounce carton of milk provides an additional 8 grams, but that is not nearly enough to offset the sugar rush of so much refined sugar and starch.
3. Eating is preferable to hunger, as snarkily suggested by John Oliver in the inaugural segment of Last Week Tonight, but the metabolic fall out after a highly refined carbohydrate diet is likely to exacerbate behavior problems in the classroom, not improve them.
4. What about the 25% of Colorado children who are struggling with their weight? These additional highly refined calories puts the federal government in the bizarre position of subsidizing obesity. Overweight children are known to experience greater hunger and less satiety with a high carbohydrate breakfast.
5. I don’t doubt the intentions of Breakfast After the Bell supporters, but I do doubt their data. The white paper prepared to support this effort is a jumble of sound bites with headlines that don’t necessarily match the data. It sounds good, but I could have a field day picking apart the claims, especially with a breakfast primarily comprised of sugar and highly processed starch. A different breakfast would garner different support.
THE PROMISE VERSUS THE REALITY
Proponents of Breakfast After the Bell would like us to believe that feeding kids in the morning will decrease risk of obesity, improve behavior, and a host of other problematic issues in addition to decreasing hunger in the classroom. A balanced breakfast does that well. As for what was packaged for the students at Soaring Eagles? In the esteemed words of pediatric endocrinologist, Robert Lustig, MD: Fat Chance.
Kids who are hungry do need to eat in order to learn, but why aren’t schools also expected to first do no harm? Why is the nutritional bar set so low? Most of the problem may be funding. But filling the belly with excessive cheap or subsidized carbohydrates only punts health care costs down the road. Preventing hunger is a laudable goal, but not at the expense of a child’s immediate and long term metabolic health.
BREAKFAST IN MINUTES
Not everyone has time to prepare a delicious breakfast from scratch in the morning. But there are many quick-to-prepare alternatives. Do you have another favorite? Let me know and I’ll add it to the list.
- Peanut (or other nut/seed) butter on whole wheat toast with a piece of fruit
- Hard boiled eggs with fruit and whole grain crackers
- Muesli with nuts/seeds and milk
- Cottage cheese and fruit with a whole grain muffin
- Greek yogurt and fruit with a sprinkle of muesli or well prepared granola
- Breakfast sandwich with whole grain English muffin, egg and cheese
- Egg (or any other protein) chili and cheese burrito