Students at Swans Island Elementary School, which has been offering a free breakfast program for several years. PHOTO COURTESY OF SWANS ISLAND SCHOOL

MDES eyes free breakfast Swans Island example cited

MOUNT DESERT — School officials here are thinking about following the lead of Swans Island Elementary School and offering free breakfasts to all Mount Desert Elementary students.

Currently, students pay $1.50 for breakfast, unless their family’s income level qualifies them for free or reduced-price lunches, in which case they also can apply to receive free breakfasts. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service reimburses schools for the cost of those meals.

Caroline Pryor, chairman of the Mount Desert school committee, said at last week’s committee meeting that she wants to hear what teachers think of the free-breakfast-for-all idea, but she is sure they know better than anyone else “how hard it is to teach a child who is hungry.”

“I would like us to think about [free breakfasts] as a way to invest in learning. I would hate to think that cost is a barrier for any student.”

Committee members Teresa King-LeClair and Todd Graham said they strongly support the idea.

“The educational and nutritional value of having breakfast available to everybody I think would be a real positive,” Graham said.

Mount Desert Principal Gloria Delsandro said several dozen of the school’s 181 students typically eat breakfast at school.

“The breakfast program means a lot to a lot of kids,” she said. “I see children eating who need to eat. And Chef Emily [Damon] really wants to get healthy food into the kids.”

Marc Gousse, superintendent of the Mount Desert Island Regional School System, said that in Westbrook, where he worked before coming to MDI last year, free breakfast was available to every student.

“We saw a huge, positive effect,” he said.

In addition to the direct benefits to students, Gousse said, “If parents know a child is going to have a wholesome breakfast provided at school, that’s one less thing they have to plan for.”

School committee members asked about the cost of providing free breakfasts for all students. Gousse said he would look into it and report back to the committee.

Swans Island experience

Swans Island Elementary has been offering free breakfast to all students for several years, according to school committee Chairman Tammy Tripler.

“The teachers brought the idea to us because they noticed that some kids were slumping before lunch, they were not able to stay on task, and [the teachers’] fear was that a lot of it was hunger-related,” she said.

The school committee at first decided to offer free breakfasts on a three-month trial basis, and the results were very positive.

“The teachers said the kids were more engaged and that some parents had written to thank them because sometimes it was hard to get the kids out the door in the morning with breakfast in them,” Tripler said.

After the free-breakfast trial, the school experimented with selling breakfast at a reduced rate, but the number of kids eating breakfast at school dropped. So, the decision was made to offer free breakfast to all students on a permanent basis.

To help make that possible, the island’s school support organization, called “People Interested in Kids” (PIK), donates $2,000 a year. The free breakfast program also has received support from the Hannaford Helps Program and the General Mills Box Tops for Education Program, as well as several small grants.

There are 34 students at Swans Island Elementary this fall. Principal Crystal DaGraca said that on a typical day, at least half of them have breakfast at school. When an especially popular item is on the menu, nearly all of the students partake.

“It’s an amazing program,” DaGraca said. “It’s so important for kids to have food.”

Some parents could well afford for their children to buy breakfast at school. Others struggle, but pride keeps them from applying for free school meals. Tripler said the school committee decided to make breakfast free for every child “to level the playing field.”

“It takes away the stigma of getting a free breakfast because it’s free for everyone; it doesn’t matter what your income level is. If you take the money aspect out of it, then all kids are equal.”

Tripler said that, unfortunately, the school can’t afford to give every child a free lunch, too.

“That would be fantastic,” she said. “But at least with breakfast, we can give them a good start to the day.”

Like Mount Desert Elementary, Pemetic Elementary in Southwest Harbor currently charges students $1.50 for breakfast. The elementary schools in Bar Harbor, Tremont and Trenton charge $1.25. MDI High School charges $1.75.


Dick Broom

Dick Broom

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Dick Broom covers the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and the school system board and superintendent's office. He enjoys hiking with his golden retriever and finding new places for her to swim. [email protected]
Dick Broom

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