Many students at Arnoldo Cantu Sr. Elementary School in San Juan, a Rio Grande Valley town just east of McAllen, do not have much. The Texas Education Agency estimates that 89 percent of the students in the school's district are from low-income households. But every morning, all of the school’s 927 students can count on a federally subsidized breakfast.
Offering free breakfasts to all interested students in low-income areas, not just to those who qualify under federal guidelines, is a program that some state legislators are trying to expand to schools in poor neighborhoods across Texas.
Senate Bill 376, written by state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, would require schools to offer free breakfast to all students at public schools where 80 percent of the student body qualifies for free or reduced-price meals.
The left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities estimates the bill could mean a morning meal for as many as 731,000 additional students.
“As one of 10 kids growing up in Brownsville many years ago, I understand the struggles that parents go through to maintain their households, and feed their children,” Lucio said.
The bill has passed the Senate and will go to the House, where a similar bill has passed out of a committee.
Under the School Breakfast Program, which began in 1966, children whose household income below 185 percent of the federal poverty line are eligible for a low-cost school breakfast; those below 130 percent receive free breakfasts. (For the current school year, 185 percent of the poverty level is $42,643 for a family of four; 130 percent of the poverty level is $29,965 for a family of four.) The federal government reimburses the school for each meal served. The breakfast program, and a similar one for lunches, is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Research has shown that students who eat breakfast are better able to concentrate and do better in school. But in Texas, participation in the School Breakfast Program is less than 60 percent of that of the National School Lunch Program. Childhood nutrition activists say the stigma of receiving free breakfasts when other students eat at home keeps some students from participating.
Because federal subsidies are tied to participation, the schools do not save money by serving fewer meals, said Anne Olson of the Christian Life Commission, an advocacy organization affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Moreover, she said, it negates society's interest in feeding "children who otherwise might not be able to eat breakfast at home, at a time when they’re developing physically and mentally.”
The Houston Independent School District, the largest in Texas, where more than 80 percent of students are from low-income households, has made breakfast free for all elementary and middle school students.
One result has been increased participation — and a corresponding increase in federal subsidies. There are additional benefits, said Brian Giles, the senior food administrator of the district.
“Anyone who’s taught a student who may not have been fed on a given day knows that meal can mean the difference between a good day and a bad day for a child,” he said.
Though the bill passed the Senate easily, there were some objections to expanding the program. Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, said the proposed bill was an inappropriate use of taxpayer money.
“I was always raised to believe that there’s no such thing as a free lunch — even though it’s breakfast,” he said. “Somebody pays. Ultimately, it costs the federal government, which in turn costs us all.”
But Lucio, who was a middle school teacher before he was elected to public office, argues that the benefits outweigh the costs.
“I think we have an obligation to make sure that every Texas child has the resources they need to reach their full potential,” he said.