At all elementary and middle schools and some high schools in the Houston Independent School District — 220 in all — every student begins the day with a free breakfast right in the classroom.
The result: fewer absences and discipline problems and an increase in math scores, according to the district’s former superintendent Terry Grier.
Houston, the nation’s seventh largest school district, where three out of four students live in poverty, also offers free lunch to all students at 186 schools, without requiring applications to qualify. The potential stigma of receiving a free meal is eliminated, and so is much of the paperwork burden on school staff, according to advocacy groups fighting poverty-related hunger.
These programs and others are expansions of traditional school breakfast and lunch. And while schools in Texas and other states have been quick to adopt them – at little or no cost to districts – participation in Oklahoma is one of the lowest in the nation.
In 17 states, more than half of eligible school districts provided universal free lunch in the 2015-16 school year, including in major districts like Dallas and New Orleans. In Oklahoma, 15 percent of districts did, ranking the state fifth lowest in the country, according to a report by Food Research & Action Center and another national nonprofit.
The money left on the table is significant. Oklahoma schools forfeited $17 million in federal funds last year, reports Hunger Free Oklahoma, an advocacy group that formed in December.
“If Houston can do it, as big as Houston is and as many schools as Houston has, (any district) can certainly do it,” said Bill Ludwig, a regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees school meal programs.
The need in Oklahoma is also significant. Nearly one in four Oklahoma children lack consistent access to food, a study by nonprofit Feeding America shows. (Food insecurity is defined by the USDA as lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active and healthy lifestyle and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.)
Students who are hungry can’t focus on learning, educators say. So when schools are held accountable for academic performance, they must first fulfill students’ basic needs, said Randy Harris, superintendent of Wagoner Public Schools.
“If we see that void and we can pick up the slack, and we’re not losing any money in doing it, then we’re just providing another benefit,” Harris said.
Traditional breakfast and lunch programs are already in place at nearly all Oklahoma schools, with free or reduced prices for low-income students.
But the USDA found half of eligible kids nationally were skipping breakfast at school, due to late buses or social stigma, especially among middle and high school students. There are barriers to lunch, too, including the cost, especially for students who may not qualify for free or reduced prices but whose families’ finances are still tight.
So the agency launched the Community Eligibility Provision as part of the Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act of 2010. The program allows high-poverty schools to offer breakfast and lunch to all students at no charge, and it eliminates the meal application process.
Schools, groups of schools or districts qualify if at least 40 percent of students live in households that receive assistance through programs like food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or are identified as homeless, migrant or in foster care. Schools are reimbursed for meals based on this percentage of students.
The USDA made the program available nationwide in 2015-16, and more than 18,000 schools participated, according to the Food Research & Action Center.
But that year in Oklahoma, only 15 percent of school districts participated — the fifth lowest rate in the nation. Of the state’s highest poverty schools, the percentage improved slightly to 21 percent.
A complement to that program is the USDA’s “Breakfast in the Classroom,” which takes the morning meal out of the cafeteria and into classrooms. Students grab breakfast off a cart in the hallway and eat at their desks for the first few minutes of class while the teacher begins the day’s lesson.
Schools that have implemented Breakfast in the Classroom say participation goes up, and behavior problems go down, the USDA reports. Attendance, too, improves.
Feeding kids in the summer is where Oklahoma fares the worst. Through another program, the Summer Food Service Program, the state fed 6.4 children in the summer of 2015 for every 100 who received meals during the school year, ranking last among states and the District of Columbia, the Food Research & Action Center reported.
An additional after-school meal program, which pairs a supper meal and snacks with extracurricular activities or tutoring, is also underutilized in Oklahoma schools and is targeted for expansion.
Schools give many reasons for not adopting these programs, but often the reasons are based on misconceptions or logistical issues that schools in other cities overcome, said Ludwig, of the USDA.
The primary reason for not expanding meal programs is that school officials believe if they don’t collect meal applications, their district won’t be eligible for Title 1 funds, which are federal funds for low-income schools. But the USDA says that isn’t true.
Another concern is that schools don’t have enough low-income students to break even on the federal reimbursements. But the programs can be structured in various ways, allowing schools to cover all expenses or even net a gain.
Other reasons include not understanding the programs or not wanting to offer universal free meals in some of their schools but not others, Ludwig said.
For breakfast in the classroom, some district officials said it would be too difficult to collect the trash or distribute the meals, or they were concerned about spills.
For help, schools with start-up costs can apply for grants, such as a $7.5 million grant the Walmart Foundation made available in October for schools to expand their breakfast programs. No Oklahoma school has applied yet.
Joy Hofmeister, state superintendent of public instruction, said the department is stepping up its efforts to educate schools about meal expansion opportunities, and the topic will be part of Engage OK, the department’s summer education conference.
“We have some of the greatest needs, and yet we are seeing participation lag at some of the lowest levels of the country,” Hofmeister said. “I’m aware of the problem, and we have spearheaded making certain we work with districts to remove barriers.”
There are signs expansion programs are picking up steam. Oklahoma City Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, reported more than 50 schools on Community Eligibility Provision in 2015-16. In 28 schools, students either receive breakfast in the classroom or have a grab-and-go breakfast available.
Tulsa Public Schools rolled out free breakfast and lunch for all students at all elementary schools this school year, expanding Oklahoma’s participation by 24,000 students.
But there are 515 school districts in the state, and the remoteness of some rural districts makes expanding some programs difficult, particularly in the summer.
A Parent’s Perspective
For parents like Virginia Dockter-Rollins, the meals school provides her two daughters, Tammera and Alison, are vital. Her daughters are in kindergarten and first grade at Remington Elementary in Tulsa, and they eat breakfast and lunch at school every day.
“I’m making $11 an hour and I can barely keep a roof over our heads, food on the table, the bills paid,” said Docter-Rollins. Her husband is disabled, and she works as a security guard.
Advocates working to address hunger in Oklahoma are especially alarmed by the trend of schools implementing four-day weeks. The extra-long weekend for many kids means waiting another day between nutritious meals.
“We are tasked with meeting kids where they are … Their needs are not just textbooks and teachers,” Hofmeister said.