Breakfast program studied Researchers probe impact free meals have on students

August 01, 1993|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Staff Writer

A local research team, taking advantage of what was long considered a glaring omission in Baltimore County schools, is studying whether students at schools with breakfast programs perform better than their counterparts at schools without them.

"It's a research opportunity," said Dr. Maureen Black, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the principal investigator for the project. "What we are trying to do -- and this is always the case with applied research -- is take advantage of a natural opportunity."

That natural opportunity is possible only because Baltimore County, until this spring, was the one public school system in Maryland that did not offer morning meals. The policy changed under new Superintendent Stuart Berger, providing an opportunity for what could be a groundbreaking project.

"There's never been anything like it," Eileen Gillan, a Maryland Food Committee spokeswoman, said of the study. "It will have national impact."

Researchers are looking at attendance, tardiness, and grades of students in four Baltimore County elementary schools that receive federal funds designated for schools with low-income populations and substandard performance.

At Arbutus and Hillendale, students began getting breakfast this spring. But because the program is being phased in, Lansdowne and Sandalwood students won't get breakfast at school until this fall. This gives researchers a chance to make comparisons. They can compare the two groups for the spring semester, and also record whether things change when breakfast is offered at Lansdowne and Sandalwood.

The point? To find out if school breakfast programs, which have never attracted as many students as free and reduced-price lunch programs, do have a positive effect, if they give students a boost.

What if the study shows that school breakfasts have little impact? "Then we would have to change our strategy [of emphasizing school programs]," Ms. Gillan said.

The federally funded breakfast program was created in 1966. In Maryland, about 7 percent of students participate, although far more qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Of students who would pay full price, less than 1 percent eat breakfast at school.

About 50 percent of the parents at the four test schools have agreed to participate in the study, sharing information on what, when and where their children eat. But the study ultimately will look only at the issue of performance as it relates to the school breakfast program, not the nutritional value of the meals served, or the relative merits of breakfast at home.

"It would be nice if we lived in a place where everyone eats breakfast at home, but there's a concern that not everyone in our country does that anymore," Dr. Black said. "We're not in the age of the 1950s where mom is at home frying up the eggs."

Kraft General Foods has underwritten the project, with an initial grant of $49,000.

The researchers are trying to find more money as they look at another issue: What keeps students from participating in school breakfast programs?

The study does have one key limitation.

It can measure how many students get breakfast at school, but not how many eat them.

Or, in Dr. Black's words: "We know what entered your tray, but we don't know what entered your mouth."

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