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Phila. school breakfasts lure few

Just a third of eligible students took part in 2006-07. Officials say they have worked to improve the situation.

Just one in three low-income students eligible for free or reduced-price breakfasts got those meals in Philadelphia schools during the 2006-07 school year, according to a national report released yesterday.

That ranked the School District of Philadelphia in the lower third of the 19 districts studied around the nation, said the report by the Food Research and Action Center, a national nonprofit organization based in Washington.

Since the 2006-07 school year, however, the district has worked to improve the situation, a district spokesman said. But problems persist in the surprisingly complex and nuanced world of school breakfast.

Beginning in September of this school year, the district started offering free breakfasts (funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture) to all students in all schools in an effort to increase participation.

That has accounted for a 9 percent increase, or 4,500 extra breakfasts per day, bringing the total number of breakfasts served daily to 54,000, Wayne Grasela, senior vice president of food services for the district, said yesterday.

The district also serves 112,000 lunches per day, the overwhelming majority free and reduced-price, Grasela said. In all, there are 167,000 students in the district, the eighth-largest in the country.

One difficulty in the district is that not everyone is sold on feeding breakfast, advocates say.

"The real problem with breakfast has been the resistance at the local school level," said Jonathan Stein, a leading antipoverty advocate long involved in feeding programs in Philadelphia schools.

"Many principals and staff have not been gung-ho behind breakfast. And this is a laissez-faire district where the principals essentially call the shots."

Stein said that many principals don't want to restructure their day to accommodate breakfast service before classes. And many teachers don't like the disruption of students eating breakfast during class, said Kathy Fisher, welfare and public benefits coordinator for Public Citizens for Children and Youth of Philadelphia.

This is a problem, she added, since the FRAC report noted that Newark Public Schools, the district with the most effective breakfast service in the nation, serves all its meals in class.

"They should make it policy in Philadelphia to have in-class breakfast feeding," Fisher said. "It seems the model works well in other places."

Some schools do serve breakfast in class, said Grasela. He took pains to say that Stein and Fisher have "helped tremendously" in developing school feeding programs.

He added that he believes that more principals are "coming on board."

"We're seeing principals embrace this," Grasela said. "If the principals really embrace it, it will really be successful."

He added that he is recommending to the district that the performance of principals in breakfast service be included in their job evaluations.

Another perceived problem with the district's approach is that it has not publicized its new breakfast plan well enough and not enough parents know about the free breakfast, advocates say.

"It's troubling that they haven't broadly publicized it," said Stein.

"We've urged them to. And we've never gotten a good explanation."

"We're kind of puzzled," said Fisher. "I don't exactly know why they're not saying more."

In response, district spokesman Vince Thompson said yesterday that the district is doing its best to get the word out.

"Sometimes it takes a while to get the message to everybody," he added.