Just after 9:30 a.m. Friday, the fourth-grade class at the Mary Lyon School in Brighton was assigned a list of start-of-day tasks, written in big block letters on the whiteboard.
“Morning math.” “Quiet reading.”
But the number-one assignment: “Breakfast.”
This year, Boston public schools have begun providing free breakfasts to all students in every school, regardless of family income, as part of a push to ensure that all schoolchildren eat healthfully and receive the nutrition they need to stay alert throughout the day.
The initiative mirrors a nationwide effort to reassess the breakfast experience.
“What this is trying to do is make breakfast more of a routine part of the school day,” said Madeleine Levin, senior policy analyst for the Food Research and Action Center, an organization that promotes in-school meals. “We want it to be something that’s not just associated with being low-income.”
Free breakfasts may also serve as a revenue source for the school system, said Michael R. Peck, director of food and nutrition services. Schools are reimbursed by state and federal funds for providing students with free meals.
Extending the program to all students, regardless of income, will probably increase reimbursements enough to more than defray the cost of extra food, and labor costs will stay the same, he said.
“We realized there was funding we were leaving on the table because we weren’t serving breakfast,” Peck said.
And gone are the days when teachers forbade eating in classrooms. Now, schools may provide grab-and-go meals for older students on their way to class, and may set aside time in first period or homeroom for students to finish up the meals.
Scientists have long recognized the importance of morning meals for children. Studies from the last two decades have suggested that healthy breakfasts can improve a child’s attentiveness, cognitive function, discipline, and test scores.
A study conducted by Massachusetts General Hospital in 2000 measured the impact of school breakfasts in 16 Boston public schools. The results: Increasing student participation in school breakfast programs also improved nutrition, school attendance, emotional functioning, and math grades.
Since 1946 , federal and state funding has helped subsidize in-school meal programs that provide breakfasts and lunches to students who may not otherwise be eligible for the free meals.
Today, Boston public schools are reimbursed $1.25 to $1.85 for each meal they provide to students from low-income families, while they receive 27 cents for each meal they provide to non-needy students.
At Mary Lyon School, 30 to 50 percent of students between kindergarten and 8th grade ate breakfast at school last year, principal Deborah O. Rooney said. She hopes to see that number jump drastically this school year.
While breakfasts have long been free for students whose families are in the lowest income brackets, sometimes children whose families narrowly miss the requirements have trouble paying for school breakfasts, Rooney said. And even those parents who can afford to send their children to school with extra cash for breakfast each day may not realize that money instead is being spent on soda or candy at the corner store.
Now that breakfast is free for everyone, “When the kids come off the bus, I feel much better taking chips and soda away because I know they have something else to eat,” Rooney said.
Making breakfast free for all students has also eliminated the stigma of free meals and some awkward conversations, Rooney said, both for children who qualify for a free or reduced breakfast and those who don’t.
Some children are self-conscious accepting the free or reduced-price food because they worry that others will know that they cannot afford to pay. Others longingly watched as others ate, because they did not qualify for a free meal and did not have money to buy one.
“A kid would ask, ‘How come I have to pay and he doesn’t?’” Rooney said. “How do you explain that to a 6-year-old?”
In the lower grades at the Mary Lyon School, there is no cafeteria, so breakfast is served in the classroom. A crate is delivered to each class with hot breakfasts like pancakes, or eggs and sausage, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and cold breakfasts on other days. On Friday, the meal was cereal, milk, crackers, and an orange.
Sitting in a quiet classroom, Konnor Mason, 9, sat ripping apart his orange while engrossed in a book. He eats breakfast at home just after he wakes up — “my mom wakes me up at 6 for no apparent reason,” proclaimed the precocious fourth-grader — but by the time he starts school at 9:30 a.m., his stomach has already begun rumbling.
In the past, he didn’t qualify for free breakfasts. Now, he can enjoy the classroom snacks every morning.
“I’m glad,” Konnor said. “I get kind of hungry.”