Tukwila’s schools offer three healthy meals, including breakfast for all

Tukwila’s schools take to heart the adage that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, offering that morning fuel for free to all of Tukwila’s roughly 2,800 students.

Craig Huckins

Tukwila’s schools take to heart the adage that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, offering that morning fuel for free to all of Tukwila’s roughly 2,800 students.

But the Tukwila School District isn’t stopping there.

It has applied for a federal grant that will allow it to offer a free breakfast, lunch and dinner to EVERY student in the district, even those whose families don’t qualify for a free or reduced-cost meal.

About 80 percent of Tukwila’s students get the free breakfast under the federal National School Lunch Program. The school district picks up the tab for the rest to ensure every student has the option to receive one.

About 1,500 breakfasts are served daily, which means that not all students are taking advantage of the free meal. But those who do are getting a healthy, nutritious meal that follows strict federal guidelines that limit salt, sugar and processed flour, which are linked to heart disease and obesity.

“We’re focused here on getting breakfast to all of our students,” said Craig Huckins, the district’s Food Service director. “Everything seems to build around that from a nutrition standpoint, is getting the kids started off correctly each morning.”

Eating a breakfast puts students in a better position to avoid obesity because they won’t reach for junk food or fast food when they are hungry in the afternoon, he said.

Offering three meals to all students will have a “major impact” on the nutrition of Tukwila’s children, said Huckins.

“With the high poverty rate that we have here in our community, there are a lot of kids who come here, this is their sole source of food. It is,” said Huckins. “If we weren’t giving them breakfast, lunch and supper, a lot of these kids would be eating a bag of chips for dinner. And that would all they would have all day long, sometimes.”

There’s a difference in academic achievement, too, he said.

“Full bellies help create brighter minds, more alert brains, more energy, more attentiveness,” he said. “We’ve seen drops in tardiness, trips to the nurse’s office, because they are not hungry anymore from stomach cramps.”

There is anecdotal evidence and national surveys that show a breakfast can contribute to an increase in math scores, he said.

For now the full price for lunches is $2.60 at elementary schools and $2.90 at Showalter and Foster for students who don’t qualify for the federal program. None of the roughly 350 students who eat an after-school dinner pay for it. The number of dinners served is expected to grow, Huckins said.

It’s a complicated task to prepare and serve about 5,000 meals a day to diners, including many who aren’t anywhere near the kitchen.

Breakfasts are prepackaged in the morning by the food-services workers from each school in assembly-line fashion at Showalter’s cafeteria for the district’s five schools. In the afternoon the breakfasts are transported to schools for the next day.

The meals must meet strict federal nutrition guidelines in order for the school district to receive reimbursement for them. Those guidelines set limits on such ingredients as sugar and requires that whole wheat, and not white wheat, is used in baking or in prepared products.

Cereal bowls are prominently marked with “25 percent less” sugar.

Every meal must have a protein, grain, dairy, fruit and vegetable, served in a certain portion size. How much the district is federally reimbursed for a meal depends on the meal service and a family’s qualification.

For example, the district receives $1 to buy food for a free breakfast for a student who qualifies for a free meal out of a total reimbursement of $1.99. The other half goes to operating costs. For a lunch, the reimbursement for the food is $1.25

The school district is audited every three years to ensure its meals meet the federal guidelines. It doesn’t have any flexibility, Huckins said.

“We work with it to make it happen to try to create something within our budget that kids will eat and they enjoy. That’s kind of a trick,” Huckins said.

Breakfast is served in the classroom at Tukwila’s elementaries – Thorndyke, Cascade View and Tukwila. At Showalter and Foster, it’s “grab and go.” Students grab the breakfast and eat it either in the cafeteria or common area or in their classroom.

Breakfast in the classroom becomes a part of the typical morning routine, when homework is collected, the daily intercom announcement is done, attendance is taken, the Flag salute and school pledge are said, according to Huckins.

“All this is normal activity that can be conducted while the students sit at their tables and eat,” Huckins said. “Of course, every teacher has a little different procedure, but, generally, there is very little if any ‘teaching time’ lost while the students are eating,” he said.

The “grab and go” breakfast is new to Showalter this year and Foster just made the switch from a traditional breakfast in February, earlier than planned because of the program’s “amazing” success at Showalter, according to Huckins.

At Showalter, the number of breakfasts served tripled to about 360 a day; at Foster, in just about two months, the breakfasts served doubled to about 220.

Variety is the spice of the meals served in Tukwila’s schools.

Breakfast at an elementary school might include cereal, apple sauce and cheese sticks and something to drink. The grab and go breakfast has six options which might include a cereal bowl, bagles and cream cheese, yogurt and fruit parfait.

For lunch students at Foster and Showalter can pick from pizza, salads, fruit parfait, hamburgers, chicken burgers and chicken nuggets.

Student-run vending machines must also meet federal nutritional guidelines, but the restrictions have cut into the revenue generated for student activities.

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