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Jeannette gets high grades for breakfast

| Saturday, May 5, 2012, 7:42 a.m.

Veronica Keener knows that muffins and cereal can be the best tools for kids as they go about their school day.

Keener, the Jeannette School District food service director, also knows that many kids don't get to eat breakfast at home.

So every day, Jeannette elementary, middle and high school students have time to get breakfast in the cafeteria.

"I do think that it helps students to learn because then they're not concerned with their stomach growling," Keener said.

Jeannette was one of 18 Pennsylvania school districts -- and three locally -- named "star performers" by the Pennsylvania Hunger Action Agency for making breakfast a regular part of the school day.

Homer-Center and Purchase Line school districts in Indiana County also made the list.

Other area districts were recognized for starting or expanding programs, or were deemed "failing" for not providing breakfast despite a need.

The center's school breakfast report card is based on data from the 2004-05 school year provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

The "star performers" were districts in which at least half of students who ate a school lunch also participated in the breakfast program.

Jeannette reached 57 percent, while Homer-Center was ranked third in the state at 72 percent.

Jeannette and Homer-Center also made the list of school districts that serve breakfast to the most low-income children.

Jeannette began its breakfast program on a small scale around 1990 and has expanded it over time.

"We heard good comments from the teachers that students had less complaints in the morning of headaches and stomachaches," Keener said.

While most of the students take advantage of the program at McKee Middle/Elementary School, more and more high school students are eating breakfast.

Keener said about 25 percent of high school students and about 59 percent of McKee students eat breakfast daily.

"Our breakfasts are only 60 cents," Keener said. "You couldn't feed your child at home for 60 cents."

Two districts also made the list of start-up or growing breakfast programs.

Derry Area was cited for reaching a nearly 83 percent increase in the breakfast participation rate. Penn-Trafford was lauded for starting a breakfast program in 2004-05.

Derry Area Food Service Director Gwen Kozar said the dramatic increase is attributed to the district starting a breakfast program at Grandview Elementary last year.

"Before it was a problem with scheduling with the buses and getting kids in on time," Kozar said.

But staff worked on a plan that allows students to "pack" a breakfast when they arrive at school in the morning and take it to their homerooms, Kozar said.

The district is feeding an average 500 breakfasts a day at Grandview, a school that houses grades two through five.

Prior to expanding to Grandview, the district had served breakfasts at the buildings housing kindergarten and first-grade students. And the district is working on expanding to the middle and high school.

But while Derry is making strides, the center listed two other area districts as "failing" children by not serving breakfast despite the need based on the district's population of low-income students.

Kiski Area and Greater Latrobe made that list. However, the center indicated that Kiski Area started a breakfast program in fall 2005.

But Greater Latrobe, with a low-income population hovering at 22 percent, has no active plans to start a breakfast program.

"We did study this four or five years ago, and with the state reimbursement it wasn't cost-effective to implement the program at that point," said Superintendent Dr. William Stavisky. "At this point I won't say we're never going to do it, but when we studied it last time it just wasn't cost-effective to proceed with it."

Stavisky said the district would have to add a whole new cafeteria shift.

"There are expenses associated with that as well as revenue," Stavisky said. "For that 20 percent who are eligible (for free and reduced price meals), that's a big benefit. What about the 80 percent who aren't eligible• How does this work for them and how do you keep your cafeteria in the black?"

Sue Mitchem, a child nutrition specialist for the Pennsylvania Hunger Action Center, said she hears a variety of reasons why schools don't offer breakfast.

Some say bus schedules make it difficult. Others say it's the parents' responsibility.

"Many parents realize that their kids get up in the morning and they don't feel like eating," Mitchem said "They're grumpy and sleepy and so forth and they ride the bus for an hour in many of the rural areas and they get to school and they're starving.

"All kids should have access to breakfast whether their parents are paying for it or whether it's free," Mitchem added.

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