Students line up before school starts at Riverbend Elementary and dig into bowls of hot oatmeal, thanks to the efforts of companies, parents and school officials.
Some elementary schools in Juneau have patched together donations and grants to provide what educators consider critical to learning: an adequate breakfast for every child. The Juneau School District contracts for a lunch program, but leaves it up to schools to offer breakfasts.
"It's pretty well established that children need to have a good breakfast to be able to come to school ready to learn," said Harborview Elementary Principal Kathi Yanamura. Harborview is planning to start a free-breakfast program next year.
Riverbend offered breakfast snacks in the past, but began a full-fledged program this year.
About a third of Riverbend's roughly 400 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, based on family income. But the school offers breakfast free to all students. It serves 60 to 100 children a day, said Principal Carmen Katasse.
"You just hate to turn people away," she said. "It's really increased our attendance rate. Many of the kids who didn't show up on time will show up.
"It's nice because we're not singling out the kids of free and reduced (price) lunch because they're all eating breakfast."
Laura Gilbert, the special education coordinator at the school, organizes fund-raisers for the program and solicits donations from companies.
Capital Chevrolet gives $200 a month, Katasse said. Breeze-In gives bagels and muffins twice a week. Families, Super Bear supermarket and the Girl Scouts have given food. And the school pays $200 a year to register with the Southeast Alaska Food Bank, from which it receives free food.
The meals include oatmeal, cold cereal, toast, bagels or muffins, fruit, yogurt and waffles, depending on the day.
A state grant, which ends next year, pays for lunch coordinator Karen Eriksen to prepare the breakfasts. Gilbert also sells toys and snacks, the proceeds of which go toward free breakfasts.
"The point is, we want the kids to go to class at 8:30 with something in their stomach," Gilbert said. "So at least we can ensure that any child that is hungry can have food."
Three Juneau elementary schools offer breakfast programs, one offers just cereal and milk, and two have no program.
National statistics show school breakfast programs are less common than lunch programs. But advocacy groups say children who eat a good breakfast are more likely to have higher scores on standardized tests, better attendance and better behavior in the classroom.
Action for Healthy Kids, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., said about 10,500 Alaska students received school breakfasts, compared to about 54,000 students who received lunches, out of roughly 133,000 students in the state. The figures were from the 2000-01 school year.
Glacier Valley Elementary's breakfast program is based entirely on donations, said Stacy Morehouse, the school's lunch coordinator. It's free to income-eligible children, and $1 for others. Aldersgate United Methodist Church helps out by taking children to school early.
Douglas Community United Methodist Church has provided food and volunteers for a breakfast program of instant oatmeal and bread at Gastineau Elementary for several years. It receives donations from individuals and other churches. The free meals are offered to all children in the 275-student school, and about 50 participate each day, said Principal Kathi Riemer.
"For a number of our students, the breakfast and lunch they get at the school are the only meals they get in a day," she said.
Retired state employees Barbara Bell, Claudette Curtis and Carlene Bednarowicz volunteer in the Gastineau program.
"What better to do with our time than go over there and feed little kids?" Bell said.
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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