Campaign offers food for thought

FRESNO -- Every morning, Clovis Unified School District students can feast on enticing breakfast offerings like jalapeño and cream cheese pockets or homemade cinnamon rolls.

But instead of eating breakfast at school, many students -- including lower-income students who are eligible to receive free or reduced-price school meals -- are eating at home, or not at all.

The district is not unique in this sense. Statewide, 70 percent of low-income students who are served by the school lunch program are not consuming breakfast, according to the California Food Policy Advocates' BreakfastFirst campaign.

In response, the California Milk Processor Board -- the creator of the GOT MILK? campaign -- has designed a fun contest to boost the low breakfast participation rates locally and statewide.

The contest challenges high school students within ten districts across the state -- including Fresno Unified, Clovis Unified and Central Unified in Fresno County, Modesto City Schools, Stockton Unified, and Sacramento City Unified -- to increase their schools' breakfast participation rates during a three-week period at the beginning of the school year.

The schools in each district with the greatest improvement in breakfast participation, compared to the same time period the year before, will win $3,000.

The contest could inspire more students to taste the district cafeterias' great breakfast options, said Clovis Unified food services director Robert Shram.

"This contest can be a healthy and fun way to involve more students in the program," Shram said during the contest kick-off at the Fresno County Office of Education last Wednesday morning. "Once they see (the food), we will have them coming back. But they have to see it."

Beyond increasing breakfast participation rates, the contest is an opportunity for more students to take advantage of the proven health and educational benefits of eating a balanced breakfast, said Jim Yovino, Fresno County Office of Education deputy superintendent.

Students who eat a nutritious school breakfast tend to consume more milk and fruit, and concentrate and perform better in the classroom, studies show.

"If you come to school and you're hungry, you're not going to perform as well," Yovino said. "We know that students who come to school and have a great breakfast do better on tests, have reduced rates of absences and tardiness, and develop overall better eating habits."

And, the contest is just plain fun.

During last year's challenge, Sunnyside High School upped its breakfast participation rates by offering music on campus and organizing fun activities, said high school senior and student body president Matthew Caudillo.

During the campaign, he said, "we were bumping mad beats... We had 'yoga and yogurt' in the morning and we had relay races. We had really good activities."

Maurice Burress, food services director for Central Unified, said a healthy competitiveness between the district's two schools will draw more kids to the cafeterias in the morning.

He said students in the 50 percent Latino district already enjoy eating breakfast at school, due to the tasty variety of hot and cold foods, and the recent addition of music in the cafeteria.

"I think the rivalry between the two high schools will make a huge difference," he said. "Our kids are huge rivals."

Steve James, executive director of the California Milk Processor Board, said the contest -- like the classic milk campaign says -- would do students' bodies good.

"It makes you feel good to know that by promoting breakfast, which is arguably the most important meal of the day, we are going to help (students) do better in school and be healthier for the rest of their lives," he said. "It's just a really good effort."

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