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Westside parents oppose LA schools' breakfast in the classroom

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For the first day of breakfast in the classroom for all students at Castle Heights Elementary Thursday, the menu included whole wheat pancakes, syrup, wildberry juice and milk.  

But most students didn't bite.

Castle Heights is in the affluent Cheviot Hills neighborhood in West Los Angeles and only 30 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch, way below the district average of 85 percent.

"We are all a little upset and skeptical of the whole program," said Jen Furmaniak, whose daughter is a 2nd grader at Castle Heights.

Furmaniak worries the program - which began last year at L.A. Unified's high-poverty schools and is now rolling out in west and north Los Angeles - will eat away at instructional minutes. She does a back of the napkin calculation: 20 minutes a day, everyday of the year, adds up to 10 full school days.

"No one is saying that it is not important for a hungry child to get breakfast," Furmaniak said. "We had a program that allowed students to get breakfast before school, before class time.

David Binkle, director of L.A. Unified's food service division, said kids won't lose out on instruction because teachers are required to teach while the students are eating.

"The bottom line is it's good for children, and you can't argue with good," he said. The program is set to roll out to all schools in the district by the end of the 2014-2015 year.

Binkle said the conversation about moving breakfast started as a way to save cafeteria workers' jobs - and it has.

"It's a situation where the majority of our families and kids need the ability to have these meals at schools, so it's really a twofold piece - jobs as well as nutrition for our kids," Binkle said.

He said the classroom breakfasts have become popular with many struggling families. Participation jumped from 200,000 breakfasts served before school to about 300,000 breakfasts now served in classrooms every school day. He said the added cost is $35 million a year, much of it subsidized by the federal government.

But with cuts to janitorial services, teachers have complained the food is attracting pests - and they say setup and clean up time is cutting into teaching time.

Cheviot Hills parents aren't the only ones fighting the program. Hancock Park Elementary parents successfully got the program delayed at their elementary school, where only about 10 percent of kids qualify for subsidized lunches.

Some parents started a petition on to make the program voluntary at each school site. It's received signatures from Studio City, West Hollywood, Woodland Hills, Chatsworth and Encino, nearly reaching its goal of 1,000 signatures. 

"We do believe there is a better way to offer breakfast to those children who need it. We also believe in the rights of parents to be able to choose what their children are eating, when they are eating it, and to provide a clean and healthy place to learn," the petition reads.

The parents want to bring the free breakfast back to the cafeteria, but the district does not allow for schools to opt-out in this way.  

Individual parents can opt their kids out of eating at their desk. Castle Heights mom, Ginnean Shaw has been helping her child's teacher count opt out forms. So far, 10 families in the class of about 30 do not want to be served. Four have opted-in.

"It's kind of a one size fits all for every school in the district, " Shaw said. "And that's not how our district is. It's very diverse."

In more affluent neighborhoods like Cheviot Hills, the program can make kids without means feel bad about themselves, said parent Robin Heitner. She said at the neighborhood middle school, where one of her children attends, all but a handful of students in the class have opted out. 

"So these five kids who are technically hungry are humiliated eating in front of these other kids," she said.

And then there are the complaints about the quality of the food - and extra calories.

"It is mostly sugar and students don't need to be eating two breakfasts - which is going to happen," said Beth Hirsch, a parent of a student at Castle Heights. She's also a chef. "When I heard what the breakfast menu was going to be, that was one of my chief concerns."

Binkle, with L.A. Unified food services, said the meals are primarily made up of whole grains, often with fruit and milk on the side, and cost about 80 cents per student. Though animal crackers and coffee cake show up on the menu, he said the program has to adhere to federal nutritional guidelines, where every food group and portion size is taken into account. 

For low-income students, the meals are paid for in full with federal reimbursements. But the district also gets a subsidy for serving higher-income kids - about 28 cents per meal, according to Binkle. The difference is made up with L.A. Unified general funds.

Should breakfast be provided in classrooms?