Peck Slip Parents Gain Support in Fight Against Classroom Breakfast

The scene at morning drop-off time at the Peck Slip School, before school starts and children are served breakfast in their classrooms. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Dec. 16, 2015

You can’t blame kids for this food fight.

Parents at the Peck Slip School, P.S. 343, are battling back against a city program that starts their children’s school day by eating at their desk.

Under the program, called “Breakfast in the Classroom,” children are served a cold breakfast in the classroom in the morning instead of a hot meal before school begins. The goal, which appears to be succeeding, is to have fewer children trying to learn on an empty stomach.

But parents at the Peck Slip School, the first Downtown school enrolled in the DOE program, are arguing that most of their children already have breakfast at home and that serving them a meal again takes away valuable time that could be used for instruction.

Stacey Vasseur, the mother of a third grader, said she was “shocked” when she read the letter from Principal Maggie Siena saying the program would be mandatory.

“It makes sense for schools with families that qualify for free lunch or that are in a compromised financial position, but we’re not ” said Vasseur, standing outside the school building on a recent morning as her son lined up with classmates to go inside. “So to make it mandatory when most of our families are sitting down together to eat just doesn’t make sense.”

Appearing before Community Board 1’s Youth Committee last week, Peck Slip School PTA co-president Vance Gorke said that about 30 minutes per day of teaching time is lost, not the 15 minutes claimed by the DOE. And citing complaints from some teachers, Gorke rejected the department’s assertion that breakfast in the classroom provides “teaching moments” and allows for a continuation of regular morning activities.

”We know absolutely that it’s a disruption to the morning routine,” Gorke told the committee, adding, “That’s two-and-a-half hours a week, almost two full school days a month, which is crazy.” Parents, he said, want their school to have the option of returning to before-school breakfasts in the cafeteria.

Siena, the principal, declined to comment.  

In a resolution, Community Board 1 called for the “dissolution” of the program at Peck Slip and said it should be avoided at all schools within the boards area.

I feel very strongly about not stopping everything and having a half-hour classroom instruction be food, said CB1 Youth Committee Chair Tricia Joyce.

Along with the purported loss of instructional time, the committee cited concerns about sanitation, food allergies, and what it deemed “questionable nutrition,” another big concern of the parents. (The Peck Slip School is only one of two in the country that serves all-vegan lunches.)

“Now it’s going to a non-hot breakfast for the children and it’s loaded with sugar and it’s not helping them in any way,” said Peck Slip parent Christine Dimmick, who complained that even non-sweet items, such as cereal and bagels, contain too much carbohydrates and little protein. “There’s nothing fresh. Everything is packaged and processed and that’s what we are trying to get away from.”

In an email response, a DOE spokeswoman said the breakfast menu “meets and exceeds” federal standards for school meals. “Students are offered a variety of menu options. SchoolFood [the company contracted to provide meals to the city’s public schools] is working closely with schools as they implement this program, and solicits and addresses feedback from school leaders, PTAs, and SLTs [School Leadership Teams].”

(The breakfast menus for December can be viewed here.)

The program, which is being rolled out to all public elementary schools over three years, has led to many more kids eating breakfast in schools where it has been implemented, from 25 percent to 80 percent, according to the DOE.

Asked if schools in the future would be able to opt out of the program, the DOE, in its statement, would say only that students are not required to eat the breakfasts but that Breakfast in the Classroom ensures that “no child will be ill-equipped to learn due to being hungry.”

“We will continue to work closely with school staff to support implementation,” the statement said.

Until this year, classroom breakfasts had been optional. But because too few principals requested them, anti-hunger groups urged the City Council and De Blasio administration to make the program mandatory. Leading that effort was the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.

Christine Binder, director of Child Nutrition Policy and Programs for the Coalition, told the Trib in a telephone interview that while Breakfast in the Classroom is something her group would like to see in every school, “even as we were pushing City Council and the mayor to implement it citywide, we would not be opposed to De Blasio allowing exemptions to Breakfast in the Classroom on a case by case basis.”

“There should be flexibility and ways to serve breakfast that works for that community in that school,” she added.

Binder recalled her visits to two schools—P.S. 18 in the South Bronx and the Peck Slip School—to observe the program in action. In the South Bronx, she said, “It was really working out well in that school. The teachers were enthusiastic, the administration was enthusiastic, the kids seemed to enjoy it.” At Peck Slip, she noted, the program looked the same but its reception by staff and parents was not.

“It was like night and day,” she said.