“Good morning baby, how you doing?” says Valerie David greeting a group of second grade girls, who simultaneously come in for a hug. Known around the school simply as Ms. Valerie, the head cook at PS/IS 217 is making the rounds of the sunlit cafeteria checking that students are eating their school breakfast.
“I want the kids to eat. I love [breakfast time] myself. I am more excited than the kids. I come every morning and go from table to table to greet the kids. I am that type of cook. Lunch is more busy. Breakfast is my favorite.”
In 2016, to inspire more kids to come to school early to enjoy a healthy and free breakfast, Ms. Valerie, along with parent coordinator Lauraine Rademaker, started a breakfast club that includes activities, games, and prizes. Since then, the school’s breakfast numbers have gone up, from 30 to 40 kids per day, to a recent high of 71. Ms. Valerie’s goal is 80 or 100 students, although she acknowledges that if they got to 100, it might be hard on her staff.
Food and Games
“Breakfast runs from 7:45-8:15 a.m. It’s only a half an hour, but in half an hour, we do great things,” says Ms. Valerie.
She started the program by taking the children’s pictures and putting them on the cafeteria wall, along with a quote about why they eat breakfast. She then added activities, including coloring and raffles. Every Monday she gives out stickers, and in the middle of each semester they give a prize to the student with the most stickers. In January, Corey Luce, the school’s gym teacher, came to one breakfast and conducted a workout.
“[We] encourage kids to come by having these activities,” she explains. “They have an activity to do before class and they are very calm before they go upstairs. They tell their friends about the activities and bring their friends.” One activity was a poster contest about breakfast. “Everything we do has something to do with fruits and vegetables.”
Breakfast for All
The federal School Breakfast Program (SBP) provides cash assistance to states to operate nonprofit breakfast programs in schools and residential childcare institutions. At the local level, the SBP program is run by local school food authorities.
In New York City, all public-school students are entitled to a free breakfast, regardless of family income.
The New York City Department of Education is the largest system of public schools in the United States, serving about 1.1 million students. SchoolFood, the Department of Education’s local school food authority, serves around 850,000 meals (including lunch and breakfast) to these students each school day.
But some of those meals could be in jeopardy.
President Trump’s budget proposal would cut the budget of the Department of Housing and Urban Development by $6.2 billion – nearly half of which would be accomplished by completely eliminating the $3 billion Community Development Block Grant program, which is used by a number of City agencies, including the programs that provide free breakfast in New York City schools.
Ms. Valerie says, “That’s crazy. That’s really, really crazy. If it’s working, why would you bother with it?”
“We try to do the best for our kids,” says Rosie Ramos, Ms. Valerie’s supervisor.
“It’s a good breakfast. Valerie tries to encourage parents. In the beginning of the school year, we invite parents, so they are aware that breakfast is free for everybody.”
Both women see breakfast as an important ingredient for school success. Ramos says, “Imagine you’re hungry; you’re not concentrating.”
All school breakfasts must meet federal meal requirements, though decisions about which specific foods to serve and how they are prepared are made by local school food authorities. Student input also counts, according to Ms. Valerie.She walks around the cafeteria talking to children to find out what’s working. “I tell them to try stuff, and I tell the manager what they don’t like.”
Breakfasts range from New York favorites, like a whole grain bagel and cream cheese, to oatmeal, organic yogurt, pancakes, or cheese omelets, depending on the day. The menu is posted outside the school and in the cafeteria. Fresh fruit is offered every day, and Thursdays are known as ‘New York Thursday,’ where breakfast includes locally sourced ingredients including New York apples, and Upstate Farms brand yogurts.
“My food is not yuck,” says Ms. Valerie. “I put love into the food. I have been here for 23 years and I love it.” In that time, she says she’s seen many generations of children grow up, including her own son. “My son went here when I was here. That whole crew graduated, now they’re married with kids and their kids went here.
“The kids make my day. A lot of kids eat breakfast at home but I encourage them, come eat my breakfast, give mommy a break.”
In her almost 12 years at the school, Ramos says she’s seen improvement in the food. “We give our best to our children. There are a lot more vegetables, and a salad bar [during lunch].” Ms. Valerie says, “The younger kids go through that salad bar, they eat lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers. Their parents are doing a great job.”
According to the women, their commitment to feeding the students doesn’t just end at mealtimes. “We don’t turn kids away at other times of the day either. As long as they get a pass from their teacher, they can come down during the day and ask for food,” says Ramos.
“We care about the kids,” adds Ms. Valerie. “They come first. We’re here for them. You can ask any kid.”
Parent Arva Brazil sends all three of her children to breakfast every day. She says, “[School breakfast] is a great start to the day. [My kids] get to eat and play with their friends. Ms. Valerie is great. She knows all of the kids. More kids should go. It’s a great amenity.”