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Columbia Heights will begin offering free breakfast, funded through state reimbursement, beginning this fall. (Photo by Emilee Wentland)

Starting in September, the Columbia Heights School District will offer free breakfast before school for students in grades pre-k through 12.

Across Columbia Heights’ five schools last year, 75% of students ate free or reduced lunch said Denise Sundstrom, director of finance and operations at Columbia Heights Public Schools. Because of that high percentage, Food Service Manager Maggie Maggio said the district can provide free breakfast, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as long as participation increases.

Columbia Heights is following the lead of other districts, like Fridley Public Schools, where 63% of students qualify for free or reduced meals.

Maggio made the announcement at the Columbia Heights School Board meeting June 25.

“We’re hoping to get the word out to students and families to let them know that this is here and they can eat breakfast at school and have that good start to their morning to really do well in school,” Maggio told the board. “I think it’ll be really successful and hopefully a good opportunity for kids to get a little more food.”

Students will have access to free breakfast each morning before school for a year, which will be considered a trial run, Maggio told ABC Newspapers.

The district has served a paid breakfast in the past that was free to students who were signed up for the free and reduced lunch program. Now, breakfast will be free for every student. Adults and staff will still have to pay.

By offering free breakfast districtwide, the district hopes to eliminate any stigma of eating breakfast at school.

“It can kind of make them singled out as the ones who eat (free breakfast), so if you’re giving it free for everyone, everyone has the opportunity,” Maggio said.

If breakfast is free for everyone, students who are running late can grab something, or someone who already ate breakfast can have a snack before school, she said.

To meet the requirements for the trial, students will still be required to punch in their PINs for breakfast so that the state can see which demographics are using the program.

Maggio got the idea to provide students with free breakfast from the Fridley School District, where she previously worked.

Maria Anderson, the nutrition coordinator at Fridley Public Schools, said participation in free breakfast has increased as word about the program has spread.

“It’s created a nice community at breakfast, especially at the high school,” Anderson said. “The students all sit together in the cafeteria and eat breakfast together, which is really nice. It’s something that wasn’t happening when just a few kids were choosing to buy breakfast.”

Behavior problems, absences and visits to the school nurse’s office have decreased in conjunction with the free breakfast program in Fridley.

To test school participation among those eating the schools’ free breakfast, Maggio said the district could follow the lead of Fridley and track visits to the health office to see if the program is successful.

The Columbia Heights breakfast program will be funded through the state and federal reimbursement the district already receives, Maggio said.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the School Breakfast Program is a “federally assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions.” The program is operated in more than 78,000 schools and institutions nationwide.

Maggio and Sundstrom encourage families to fill out applications for free and reduced lunch, even if they’re unsure if they qualify.

Families have to apply every year, and this year the forms are available in about 50 languages so families can better understand the application process, Maggio said.

“We feed kids no matter what,” Maggio said. “But it works much better if we’re getting those forms turned in on the food service side, but also the educational side.”

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