With the constant hum of negative political news at the national and international level, it’s easy to miss the fact that we may be on the verge of something very positive on the local and state level with regard to food and hunger.
The centerpiece has been a Springfield success story: Breakfast in the Classroom. Now those who implemented the program district-wide in Springfield’s public schools want to expand the program to high-poverty districts statewide. The bill to do it has passed the House and moves on to the Senate as bill S.267.
The program works as follows: at the beginning of the day as the bell rings, students are served breakfast in the classroom by employees of Sodexo, the contractor Springfield Public Schools uses for food service. For the first 10 minutes of the day, the teacher takes attendance, collects homework, or goes through a short lesson as the students eat. After that, the school day continues as normal.
The program was initially piloted in 2012 with a single school. By 2017, all 60 Springfield schools were participating, with many reporting a more than 80 percent participation rate in the Breakfast in the Classroom program. Springfield Central High School was the first urban high school to pilot the program in the country.
Since implementation of the program, Springfield Public Schools has reported trips to the nurse’s office have decreased, attendance has increased, and the rate of suspensions has fallen. And go figure — students who are guaranteed breakfast are more likely to come to school and are better able to focus when there.
At the center of this push, it is unsurprising to see Liz Wills-O’Gilvie, who spoke with the Advocate last year about Springfield not having enough grocery stores and also having some grocery stores that have few affordable healthy options for people. Wills-O’Gilvie is a volunteer elementary school gardening educator, chair of the Springfield Food Policy Council Steering Committee, and board chair of Gardening the Community.
“It doesn’t cost the state anything,” Wills-O’Gilvie said of the breakfast program, adding that federal reimbursement from the program actually helped the city build a $21 million Culinary and Nutrition Center for the Springfield Public Schools.
At this center, owned by the city, Sodexo employees will work to get local and healthy foods prepared to be served to the city’s students.
The program has been positive on a number of fronts: low-income students are better fed, all students are given the opportunity to have healthier food, local farmers have a new buyer for their food, and Sodexo has been able to expand in Springfield and offer jobs to many city residents.
Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, whose empathy has been lacking when discussing immigrant families in the city, spoke well at the facility’s opening ceremony last month, which will be a boon to city residents in poverty.
“We have to help out families — that means we’re also helping to feed them and at times to clothe them and give them an opportunity for a positive foundation with their families,” Sarno said. “This will do it. From breakfast to lunch to after school activities, we’ll make sure that every single one of our students will be educated and fed properly.”
Wills-O’Gilvie said she believed the bill would require the majority of school districts in the state to offer the Breakfast in the Classroom program. While a similar bill has failed in previous sessions, Wills-O’Gilvie said there was misinformation on the costs.
At a breakfast meeting last month, Wills-O’Gilvie, along with representatives from other food-oriented organizations like Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) and the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, discussed their legislative priorities.
Included was continuing the Healthy Incentives Program (HIP), which allows low-income families with SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps) to buy food at farmers markets, farm stands, and through farm shares.
HIP has run out of money each year since it began in 2017, and Wills-O’Gilvie and her fellow advocates were hoping for about $8.5 million for the program. The House only allocated about half of that, and the Senate Ways and Means Committee recently recommended allocating $6.5 million. Wills-O’Gilvie and other advocates had hoped the Senate would add more after 23 of the 40 members of the state Senate signed a letter asking the chair of the Senate’s Ways and Means committee to fund the program at $8.5 million this year.
Healthy and local food for low income families should be a no-brainer in the state, supporting local farms and offering affordable and healthy food to residents. That’s especially true for our young people in public schools.
Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.