A.J. Wilson’s parents have always told him that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
Now, the seventh grader at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School and his classmates can all get it for free. The Juneau School District has expanded its breakfast program, making breakfast free for elementary and middle school students in the district.
While some schools have had volunteer-led free breakfast programs, this is the first time that all middle school students have had access to a free breakfast, according to a release. The school district will also allow high school students who have received reduced-price meals with free breakfast and lunch for the first time.
Wednesday morning’s breakfast at Dzantik’i Heeni included options of English muffins, eggs, two types of whole grain cereals and applesauce, and dozens of students filled the lobby before 7:30 a.m., an hour before classes started. JSD Food Service Supervisor Adrianne Schwartz looked around the room, almost bouncing with excitement.
“I’m just completely thrilled,” Schwartz said, “because we’ve expanded and we’re serving like 800 breakfasts a day and 1,500 lunches. That’s the beginning of the year, so those numbers will continue to grow.”
With this program, which started at the beginning of the school year, more than two-thirds of students in Juneau now have the option of free breakfast. As of this Tuesday, JSD Chief of Staff Kristin Bartlett said, there are 2,108 elementary school students and 1,066 middle school students. That makes up 68 percent of the entire school district’s enrollment (4,692).
Schwartz said that according to last year’s report from the state, 27 percent of students in the district were eligible for free meals last year. The state determines a student’s eligibility based on numerous factors, including family income, whether a student is homeless, whether a student is a foster child and other factors.
Schwartz and others at the district wanted to make these meals available for all students. They needed about $30,000 to do it, and a handful of local organizations stepped forward. The Juneau Community Foundation and United Way of Southeast Alaska, along with Avista, Alaska Native Sisterhood Camp 70 and the Benito and Frances C. Gaguine Fund, combined forces with the school district to raise the money.
JCF Executive Director Amy Skilbred and United Way of Southeast Alaska President Wayne Stevens were at Dzantik’i Heeni on Wednesday morning to present Schwartz and the district with a check for $24,300 to support the program. Dzantik’i Heeni Principal Molly Yerkes was also there, and said that the money spent on this program will be more than paid back down the line.
“I think it costs us less in the long run, because kids’ basic needs are getting met,” Yerkes said. “They’re safe, they’re fed, they have an area to relax, so we’re not paying for eight assistant principals to deal with cranky kids because they’re tired and hungry.”
Yerkes and others at the district believe that the number of children partaking in breakfast will increase now that the food is free for all. With middle school being such a sensitive time, some students on the free food plan before this might have been embarrassed to be seen getting a free meal, Schwartz explained. With this program, Yerkes said, everyone is on equal footing.
“The other thing that’s pretty fabulous about this program is it’s invisible, whether or not a student is paying, whether or not they’re on free or reduced lunch,” Yerkes said, “and at middle school, if there’s any hint of stigma, kids would rather not eat than be embarrassed.”
Providing breakfast at schools has become more and more of a focus across the state, Child Nutrition Program Manager for the Alaska Department of Education &Early Development Jo Dawson said. In the past six years, she said, the amount of breakfasts served in schools has risen by 31 percent. Dawson said that 222 school sites at 29 school districts across the state offer free breakfast to students in some capacity.
Having breakfast every morning, Dawson said, better prepares students to learn. Yerkes pointed out that even beyond the aid in the classroom, the school breakfast program provides students with a warm, safe place to come in the winter before school and a place where students can be with their friends.
Wilson, who said he’s been coming to the school’s breakfast for about a year, said he heard about it from a friend and wanted to join him. Fellow seventh graders John Hawkins and Hayden Kuzakin also said they heard about it from friends. Hawkins pointed out that another added perk is that the school gym opens up during breakfast and he and his friends can go play basketball for a little while after breakfast.
Hawkins, Kuzakin and Wilson all agreed that the best days for breakfast are when cinnamon rolls are on the menu. According to the online menu, the three of them will be in a good mood this Friday morning, when iced cinnamon rolls appear as an option.
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at email@example.com.