Every morning, Brian Guillen, a skinny second-grader at Zela Davis School in Hawthorne, walks his two younger brothers to school because both of his parents start work at 7 a.m.
So the free breakfast delivered to their classrooms every day courtesy of the Hawthorne School District is a blessing.
But that breakfast program – as well as a similar one in Torrance – could soon come to an end.
School officials say it’s an unfortunate irony: The program that has brought free breakfast to thousands of low-income students in Hawthorne and Torrance is in jeopardy because of a set of proposed federal regulations seeking to enhance the nutritional value of the meals. In Torrance, the new rules could also come at the expense of the lunchtime salad bars, officials say.
Food service directors say that while the intentions driving the proposal are good, the federal funding isn’t there to meet the mandate. This leaves cash-strapped local districts to either pay the difference or drop their programs altogether.
“They are letting perfection be the enemy of the good,” said Anna Apoian, food services director for the Hawthorne School District. “You have this (proposed) ideal meal, but unfortunately students don’t have time to eat it, and we can’t afford it.”
The proposed new rules are the product of a sweeping movement to address the childhood obesity epidemic by forcing schools to serve healthier food to students. Published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in January, the recommended regulations generally call for increasing the amount of whole grains, fruits and vegetables and decreasing the amount of sodium and saturated fats served with every school meal.
The proposal isn’t a done deal: the public has until April 13 to submit written comments.
Apoian has launched a grass- roots campaign to protest the proposed changes, which are slated to take effect in the fall of 2012. For the past couple of weeks, she has been meeting with parents, teachers and whoever else will listen, asking them to sign and send pre-written letters of protest to the USDA in Washington, D.C. As of late last week, 1,000 parents, 200 teachers and 150 food-service employees had obliged.
“And I’m not stopping there,” Apoian said, adding that she will send all the letters in a couple of weeks.
The new rules would have a more significant impact on Hawthorne than Torrance because a much higher proportion of Hawthorne’s students – nearly 90 percent – qualify for subsidized meals.
Since the percentage in Hawthorne is so high, the district serves free breakfasts to all 9,000 K-12 students. (The elementary district includes a charter high school.) At 8:30 every morning, they gobble down the 350-calorie meal, which includes one wholegrain bread product, skim milk, a protein and one piece of fruit. The new proposed regulations are essentially calling for double the wholegrain bread and double the fruit.
The federal government would boost funding for the program by 6 cents a meal, but Apoian said her total additional cost will be more like 40 cents. That would cost the Hawthorne district an extra $500,000 a year. The expense, she said, would deal a fatal blow to her 8-year-old breakfast program.
Hawthorne has been especially hard hit by the down economy. As of January, its unemployment rate stood at 16.4 percent, the worst in the South Bay.
School officials say many of the students go to bed hungry. Paradoxically, Hawthorne’s schools are also plagued with unusually high rates of childhood obesity; 30 percent of them are overweight, district officials say.
“For these kids, breakfast for free is not a perk, it’s a need,” said Hawthorne school board member Cristina Chiappe. “A hungry kid is not going to be able to learn the way a kid with a full tummy would.”
In Torrance, about 10 of the district’s 17 elementary schools offer breakfast in the cafeteria. Roughly a third of the students at those schools eat it, said Lynette Rock, the district’s director of food and nutrition services.
This program, too, would likely face elimination if the proposed regulations come to pass, she said.
“I think the rules are good; the problem is, it’s an unfunded mandate,” Rock said. “Our proposal is, pilot it in a few districts and see if it works before you take it nationwide.”
Rock’s bigger concern is that the new rules could – again, ironically – lead to the elimination of her lunchtime salad bars. That’s because the new regulations boost the amount of fruits and vegetables students must put on their plates. If schools don’t comply, they can’t be reimbursed by the federal government for the meals.
As is, the salad bars in Torrance schools allow students to pick and choose their fruits and vegetables. The problem, Rock said, is that most students don’t voluntarily take enough produce to meet the proposed minimum for lunch. (Half a cup of fruit or three-
quarters’ cup of vegetables.) This means that instead of allowing students to choose what they take, cafeteria workers will have to pile fruits and vegetables on their plates. This would defeat the purpose of the salad bars.
“Children will eat it if they choose it,” she said. “If you just put it on their plate, most of them are going to just choose not to eat it.”
Rock said she intends to meet with some of California’s congressional members to explain the impact to students in Torrance.
Not all South Bay school districts are up in arms about the proposed regulations.
In Redondo Beach, Stephanie Tovar, the K-12 district’s director of purchasing and child nutrition, said the district is already in compliance.
“Our community is pretty health conscious,” she said.
She added that the district’s breakfast program is very small, because few students in Redondo qualify for subsidized meals.
In the Lawndale School District, Food Services Director Arturo Nuno said he believes he can make it work. But he also said the recommendations are flawed.
“I think it’s well-intentioned,” he said. “But you can only give a kindergartner so much food. You can give them two apples; that doesn’t mean they are going to eat them.”