HAMMOND — Every weekday morning 11-year-old Jacquise Billups wakes up, gets dressed, puts on some music and walks to Edison Elementary School where his breakfast is ready and waiting.
Today it’s whole wheat doughnuts, fresh fruit and 1-percent milk prepared by the School City of Hammond’s Food and Nutrition team. Yesterday it was breakfast pizza and juice.
“We’ve got the best breakfast over here,” Billups said. “All of our food tastes awesome.”
Like the more than 14 million students nationally, the Edison fifth-grader eats breakfast every morning free of cost. It’s all possible through the National School Breakfast Program, which the School City of Hammond has belonged to for five years.
Local police, firefighters, school board members and more stepped up as special guest servers this week to help School City of Hammond students like Billups celebrate National School Breakfast Week.
Lake County Sheriff Oscar Martinez circled the Edison Elementary cafeteria Friday, moving from table to table to ask students about their breakfast and answer their questions about law enforcement officers. State Rep. Carolyn Jackson stopped by Wallace Elementary also on Friday, and North Township Trustee Frank Mrvan visited Morton Elementary on Wednesday.
“Right now we live in a society and a generation that’s fast paced,” Martinez said. “We’re always on the move. We’re always running late, getting ready for work ourselves, trying to get the kids ready. It’s good to have a program like this where we all know, even for adults, that having breakfast is an important part of your day.”
For many students, Hammond's program could be their only source of a well-nourished meal for the day. More than 75 percent of the school city’s student population is eligible for free and reduced price meals, according to the state Department of Education.
The district qualifies for federally funded meal assistance due to the percentage of Hammond students eligible for free and reduced meal benefits based on family income. However, the federal program extends to every student, offering free breakfasts to all, regardless of family income.
And, this year, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Program, Hammond is expanding its free meal services to cover lunch as well.
At Edison Elementary, 54 percent of the elementary’s more than 650 students eat breakfast at school. That’s more than 15 percent higher than national average for elementary schools, said Christine Clarahan, director of food and nutrition services for Hammond schools.
“They’re able to focus a lot more,” Edison Elementary Interim Principal Stephanie Kovacik said of her students. “They’re a little bit more awake and alert after getting their breakfast.”
The school city as a whole serves an average of more than 5,200 breakfasts daily across the district, and served just over 1 million reimbursable student breakfast meals last year alone.
But, Clarahan is working to increase that number. Throughout the district, more than 42 percent of students eat school breakfast, and serving older students can present challenges.
At the elementary schools, most students are easily directed in the morning to sit down to a breakfast meal before classes. Middle and high schoolers are often busy before classes and don’t make it into the cafeteria for breakfast.
Building principals have noticed the difference, Clarahan said, with test scores showing steady improvement since the breakfast cart program began.
“When the kids are hungry,” Clarahan said, “it’s so hard to learn when you’re hungry.”
So, Clarahan’s staff went directly to the students, serving breakfast from carts in the hallways at schools like Scott Middle School and Clark Middle/High School. Next year, Clarahan said she hopes to follow suit with the elementary schools, bringing breakfast to the students in their classrooms and reaching more students through the convenience-based service.
Meanwhile, the district is working to get the word out to families about Hammond’s free meals. In addition to lunch and breakfast, the school city offers light suppers at no cost in eight Hammond elementaries through the YMCA After School Care Program. Some schools also participate in the USDA’s After School Snack Program.
Yet, even five years after joining the National School Breakfast Program, Clarahan said, some families still simply don’t know they can take advantage of the schools' free breakfasts.
“It’s just letting them know all you have to do is come,” Clarahan said. “It’s just getting that word out.”