At Martin Luther King Elementary School, the cafeteria is packed with students grubbing on whole-wheat bagels with cream cheese and fruit before rushing off to class.
At this high-poverty campus, breakfast doesn’t end when the first bell rings. Principal Janell Ephraim estimates they see between 10 and 14 of the school’s 500 students arrive late every day. The front desk clerk asks those students if they’ve eaten, and if they haven’t, they’re allowed to visit the cafeteria for breakfast before going to class — a short-term time investment with long-term benefits.
A bill sponsored by state Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, seeks to make this scenario more common in Washington. She’s sponsored HB 1508, dubbed “Breakfast after the Bell,” that’s premised on the idea that students learn more effectively on a full stomach and is intended to spur more schools to offer breakfast after the beginning of the day.
Previous versions of the bill stalled in past legislative sessions. But this version has picked up steam in the Legislature where it has passed both chambers with bipartisan support. In some local cases, the bill would codify what schools already do.
“It sits in line with what we already believe in serving the needs of the whole child,” Vancouver Public Schools spokeswoman Pat Nuzzo said.
Currently, some schools in Washington offer breakfast to students who arrive shortly before or after classes begin.
Stonier, who works in special services in Evergreen Public Schools, said students who arrive at school too late to take advantage of breakfast services often live in poverty, take care of siblings, lack stable transportation or have other adverse circumstances.
“Those, by and large, tend to be kids who are on free and reduced-price lunch,” Stonier said. “The more we learned about poverty and who was coming to school late, we realized that these are kids in food-insecure homes.”
School breakfast and lunch programs are subsidized by the state and federal governments. Students whose household income is at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty guidelines ($31,980 for a family of four) qualify for free meals. Students whose household income is between 130 and 185 percent ($44,510 for a family of four) of the federal poverty level qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
The bill designates a public school as having high need if 70 percent or more of its students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Under the bill, schools that meet this threshold must offer breakfast to students if they arrive after the bell beginning in the 2019-2020 school year. The bill creates grants for school districts to start or expand their breakfast programs.
Schools could offer simple food that students can grab and eat at the start of the day or in between morning classes. They could also offer breakfast during recess or later in the morning or during class.
Nuzzo said campuses in the district already provide quick meals for students who arrive at school late. Depending on when students arrive, they can visit the cafeteria or the Family-Community Resource Center for food.
“We would be supportive of that legislation, but we’re already doing it,” she said.
The latest data from the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s office — compiled in the 2016-2017 school year — suggests only about 18 percent of the state’s 2,445 schools have 70 percent or more students receiving free and reduced-price meals. Those numbers can fluctuate from year to year as school demographics change.
According to that same report, Vancouver Public Schools campuses Martin Luther King, Fruit Valley, Roosevelt, Washington and Peter S. Ogden Elementary schools, McLoughlin and Discovery Middle Schools, and Fir Grove Children’s Center met that threshold.
“If they don’t eat, it affects their learning in extreme ways,” Ephraim said. “You can’t focus. You’re irritable. They’re tired.”
Currently, there are no schools in Evergreen Public Schools where 70 percent or more students receive free and reduced-price lunch, district spokeswoman Gail Spolar said. Last school year, however, 71.08 percent of Orchards Elementary School students received free and reduced-price meals.
Jen Misfeldt, the district’s manager for child nutrition services, said she was disappointed to see the high threshold for free and reduced-price meals. In an email, Misfeldt said offering food after school has begun and could help all students.
“Considering breakfast participation after the bell as instructional hours is a big step forward with expanding breakfast opportunity for students,” Misfeldt said in an email. “There are a number of additional other factors or reasons a student may not eat breakfast at home, so making this only applicable to those schools 70 percent or greater is missing a lot of potential.”
But Stonier said that she doesn’t think the threshold is too high. State law requires schools to provide a minimum number of instructional hours each year, which doesn’t include time spent on meals. She said that some schools have wanted to serve breakfast after the bell, but have been worried that offering meals during class will affect their number of instructional hours. She said that the bill clarifies that it won’t if the meals don’t interfere with instruction.
“I think we are going to see a higher implementation than what we are mandating,” she said.
Stonier said that the bill isn’t aimed at Clark County or any particular part of the state. She said it also has plenty of “Republican fingerprints” on it, including a requirement that the bill’s outcome be reviewed.
In the Senate, the bill passed on Jan. 31 on a 43-5 vote, with all three of Clark County’s senators voting in favor. The bill passed the House on a 83-15 vote earlier that month. From Clark County, Republican Reps. Liz Pike, Brandon Vick and Vicki Kraft voted against it.
In a text, Kraft said the legislation was a state mandate and schools should be allowed to implement it if they choose to do so.