There’s nothing like Cheerios floating in a bowl of strawberry milk to get 9-year-old Daisi Sierra ready for her spelling test.
The cold cereal was one of the items on the menu Friday at Lincoln Elementary School, where Sierra and two friends eat breakfast every day. Lincoln is one of 11 elementary schools in the Mesa Unified School District that has started to provide free breakfast for all its students this year.
“You want as many children to take advantage of breakfast as you can get. They do better academically, with tardiness. There’s a lot of benefits,” said Loretta Zullo, the district’s director of food and nutrition.
She is hoping that the new “universal breakfast” program, which runs 30 minutes prior to the morning bell, will lure new breakfast-eaters to the school cafeteria for breakfast burritos, ham-and-egg biscuits, yogurt and fruit plates and french toast.
Previously, free breakfast was only available to children whose low family income qualified them for federal free and reduced-price lunch programs.
Too often, Zullo explained, families would avoid the breakfasts because there was the stigma attached to the meals as being for “poor kids.” Now that any student at the school can participate, she hopes that stigma will disappear.
Parents can eat breakfast with their children, too, though they must pay $1.25.
Sierra said she’s learned her lesson when it comes to breakfast: Last year, she was in too much of a hurry to eat before taking Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards.
“I was hungry and I couldn’t think,” she said.
Some East Valley schools, including Mesa’s Holmes Elementary, use a “breakfast in the classroom,” model where children also get a free breakfast, but eat in their rooms instead of in the cafeteria.
Zullo said that is ideal, but logistically, it can get complicated because of the amount of time it takes and the waste it produces.
It’s too early for Zullo to tell if the free program will make breakfast more popular. But if administrators see improved attendance and behavior, it could be expanded to more schools next year, she said.