Metro

Boston to expand breakfast in classroom program

Missed breakfast? Don’t worry about it.

The Boston Public Schools this year plan to triple the number of schools that serve free breakfast in the classroom in hopes of getting more kids to start the day on a full stomach.

Teachers will hand out french toast sticks, muffins, and other items after the morning bell rings. Students can munch away as they settle into their seats or even as their teacher introduces a new lesson or goes over material from the previous day.

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The goal is to have 50 schools participate, up from 17 last year. The first day of classes in Boston is Thursday.

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Laura Benavidez, executive director of the Boston school system’s food and nutrition services department, said breakfast in the classroom is a common-sense measure to combat hunger, which then can increase the odds of those students of having a more successful day academically.

“When students are coming into school hungry, are they focusing on learning or when is lunch coming?” she said.

Many school officials and healthy food advocates consider breakfast in the classroom a better approach than offering breakfast before the bell rings. The latter approach requires students to show up to school earlier, and often students miss out because they are late for a variety of reasons, including tardy buses.

The move comes as the state Legislature is considering a bill that would require breakfast in the classroom in any school where 60 percent or more of students live in poverty. Passage would bolster recent efforts over the past four years by some school systems that have adopted breakfast in the classroom.

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Offering breakfast before the opening bell is a big reason participation in school breakfasts programs, which are funded through reimbursements from the US Agriculture Department, is low among school systems statewide, hovering between 30 to 35 percent, according to the EOS Foundation, a Massachusetts nonprofit devoted to ending childhood hunger.

“I think hunger is really hidden,” said Andrea Silbert, president of the EOS Foundation. “I don’t think people realize how many hungry students there are. Hungry doesn’t mean you are underweight. You can be overweight too.”

The EOS has provided school systems in Massachusetts $1.5 million over the past four years to expand breakfast in the classroom, benefiting 33,000 students. Silbert says that after schools adopt breakfast in the classroom, the percentage of students eating those meals tends to exceed 90 percent.

Currently, in Boston, the overall percentage of students eating breakfast at school, including those before and after the bell, is 38 percent. Superintendent Tommy Chang predicts the district’s participation rate will rise rapidly as more schools switch to breakfast in the classroom.

“That’s when we have a captive audience,” he said.

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Chang made the breakfast announcement at a back-to-school briefing Friday at the Perkins Elementary School in South Boston, which doesn’t have a cafeteria and has been serving breakfast in the classroom for years.

The briefing touched upon many issues, from the hiring of Revolution Foods in California to provide breakfast and lunches to schools that operate without full-service cafeterias to an update on changes to the way school buses are routed.

The school system has tapped experts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to help devise new bus routes for this fall that are more cost-efficient. John Hanlon, the school system’s chief of operations, said about half of the 600 routes have been tested so far, and he expects the buses will run smoothly on the first day.

He added that no bus drivers ended up being laid off as the number of bus routes winnowed down from 650.

Chang also announced that 100 Boston schools would partner with schools in the Houston area to offer support in the coming weeks. The schools have yet to be identified and details are still being worked out.

Craig Martin, principal of the Perkins School, said it is critical for his school to offer breakfast in the classroom because more than 90 percent of its students live in low-income households.

“We want to make sure every single young person who comes through the building has an opportunity to have a quality meal in their belly every day,” he said.

James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com.