Don’t Blame NYC's Breakfast in the Classroom for Obesity

NYC shouldn’t stop program after survey’s results

Last week a story came out in the New York Times about a study that cited students in New York public schools were eating breakfast in multiple locations and were therefore “inadvertently taking in excess calories.” According to the article, the district’s breakfast in the classroom program—currently in 381 schools—has been halted due to the results of this study.

I spoke with Eric Goldstein, chief executive of The Office of School Support Services for the NYC Department of Education, earlier this year about the district’s breakfast in the classroom program. For Goldstein, increasing breakfast participation was one of his top priorities, and he felt that breakfast in the classroom—provided free for all—was the best way to accomplish this.

Goldstein is hardly alone in his thinking on the subject. Time and time again, I speak with child nutrition directors who tell me about the positive returns of a breakfast in the classroom program.

I think we all can agree that getting more students to eat a healthy breakfast at school is not a bad thing. Placing blame on school breakfasts for childhood obesity is not the answer. That’s not to say these children in New York aren’t eating too many calories in the morning.

My biggest issue with the city halting the breakfast in the classroom program because of the study is that the blame was placed on the schools. These students are eating in the schools, but they are eating in another place too. So why is the blame always on the schools? 

New York City has it’s own set of difficulties for a child nutrition program. The bodega culture is prevalent here. For many who purchase their groceries in a bodega (or corner store), it’s because that’s the only food option they have available. I walk past a middle school every day on my way to the subway. In the seven blocks between the school and the subway, there are probably four or five bodegas and a McDonald’s. And I see kids with backpacks coming out of those places every day with high-calorie options that offer little in the way of a balanced morning meal.

I asked Goldstein about this very issue, and he admitted it was a challenge. His solution: education.

“Breakfast is free for everybody, so why would you spend money and time on something you don’t need to?” he explained as one of the marketing campaigns the district has directed at parents. We need to send “a different message to [parents and students] explaining why eating breakfast with us is much better than spending money on some junk food in a bodega. It’s not just economically for the parents, it’s time you don’t have to waste. For the kids, it’s something that is healthier for you and just as tasty.”

Perhaps better education still needs to take place.

In a district with a free and reduced percentage of 74%, in a challenging economic time, why would anyone want to restrict a healthy, and free, breakfast offered in classrooms? If kids are eating too many calories in the morning, let’s focus on those “empty calories” they may be eating at the bodegas or home. Leave the school’s breakfasts alone.