COLUMBIA — At 8:45 a.m., teachers and students at Parkade Elementary School hear the morning bell but rarely a growling stomach. Minutes earlier, more than 300 students chowed down on Cheerios, apples and animal crackers at one of the school's three breakfast stations.
The breakfast stations are new to Parkade this school year. Other schools offering free breakfast for students include Benton, Blue Ridge, West Boulevard and Field elementary schools. Schools qualify to offer free breakfast as part of a Department of Agriculture program if they have a high enrollment in their free and reduced-price lunch programs.
"Kids are starting the day off with sure-fire food in their stomachs," said Laina Fullum, Columbia Public School District nutrition services director. "It seems to be working out really nicely."
At Parkade Elementary, more than 50 percent of the student body has been using the free and reduced-price lunch program for the past five years. More students are taking advantage of the free breakfasts, said principal Amy Watkins. Every morning, kindergartners and first-graders are served breakfast in the cafeteria. The rest of the students can stop by breakfast stations, which are located in the three main hallways, before class.
"Fewer students are going to the nurse with headaches and stomachaches around 10 or 11 since we started serving breakfast in the mornings," Watkins said.
The teachers have been supportive, Watkins said, supervising students during breakfast time to ensure every student who needs to eat is fed. Breakfast is available for purchase at all Columbia schools. Breakfast at secondary schools begins at 7:30 a.m., and elementary school breakfast begins at 8:30 a.m. The district participates with the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program to offer free or reduced-price meals at school.
As of early October, about 36 percent of Columbia students were on the free and reduced-price meal plans. That number has risen from 31.1 percent in 2007 and is the highest it's been over the past five years.
However, that number might be inflated, Fullum said, because it includes students who used the program last year and have not renewed their meal plan this year. The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will provide more accurate numbers in November. Another reason for the high numbers, Fullum said, may be due to a blanket distribution of the application. Every child in the district received an application form.
"I always encourage families to apply if they feel they would benefit," she said. Fullum said she also speculates that the economy and school meal prices rising 25 cents had something to do with the increase in students using the program.
However, Columbia's percentage of students using the meal plan has continued to remain below the state percentage, which has hovered near 40 percent and reached its peak in 2007 at 41.1 percent.
In 2007, the National School Lunch Program operated in more than 101,000 public and nonprofit private schools and residential childcare institutions. More than 30.5 million children and teens received free or reduced-price lunches each school day.
Fullum reported that elementary students in the district are using the program more than high school students, who she said make more independent meal decisions. Parents and caretakers can find eligibility guidelines and an application for the free or reduced meal programs on the Columbia Public Schools' Web site or at each school's office.