Starting in March, all students at Orchard Elementary will receive free breakfast before school.
The pilot program, run by Sodexo, the private company that manages food services at Billings-area schools, will make meals available to all students, regardless of their economic background.
“I think we’ll be very successful,” said Bette Hunt, food services director for Billings School District 2.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture pays for the breakfasts under its free and reduced-price meals program. Orchard, where 90 percent of its student population qualifies for free and reduced-priced meals, will use USDA reimbursements to cover the costs on the remaining 10 percent of students.
Orchard has long served breakfast to its students. However, only those who qualified for free and reduced-priced meals could eat — roughly 280 to 300 students each morning.
Mark Venner, the principal at Orchard, hopes to bump that number up to 350 or 360 by making the meals free to all students. The school has about 430 students.
By offering free breakfast to all, the stigma around those already participating is removed, Venner said. More importantly, it’ll be one more healthy free meal for students who wouldn’t otherwise have it.
“All of our kids now can come in (and eat) in a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere,” he said.
Children who eat a good breakfast are “better learners, better students,” he said.
Denise Juneau, the state superintendent of public instruction, said she’d seen it in her own family.
“My grandmother was a school cook for 28 years,” Juneau said. “She understood that serving nutritious choices at school breakfast provides the brainpower students need for academic success while teaching them an important lifelong skill — learning to eat healthy.”
Valerie Addis is a true believer.
Six years ago in South Carolina, Addis climbed onto a bus to visit a neighboring school district and see its free breakfast program with the goal of proving programs like that couldn’t work. She thought they became burdens for the district and created more wear on already aging buildings.
Instead, after about 15 minutes at the school, she and the other administrators with her were asking themselves, “Why didn’t we think of this sooner?” she said.
Since then, Addis, who is now the food and nutritional services supervisor for Missoula County Public Schools, has worked to implement programs that serve free breakfast to all students at 34 schools.
“The positives of the program are purely behavioral and academic,” she said.
Well-fed students concentrate better during instruction time and on assignments, and they’re less likely to act out in class.
“It is probably the most phenomenal academic support that any school can give to its students and teachers,” Addis said.
In Missoula County, four schools run the free breakfast program — all of them have free and reduced-price meal student populations of 50 percent or greater.
At Orchard, if the program works, Sodexo will begin expanding it to other Billings schools with high rates of qualifying students, Hunt said.
In the next few weeks Hunt will begin sending information home to Orchard parents explaining the program and encouraging them to participate.
“We can meet the basic needs of students so they can achieve,” Venner said.
Contact Rob Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 406-657-1231.