So far, more than half are choosing to do so.
The Sullivan County school’s program, which along with one at Bluff City Elementary began at the beginning of the semester earlier this month, has almost doubled the number of Ketron breakfast eaters in grades kindergarten through fifth.
The Ketron and Bluff City free breakfast program is to last at least through the end of the school year. The county’s Emmett Elementary, like Bluff City in the eastern end of Sullivan County, has had the free universal breakfast program for about eight years.
Similar programs launched Jan. 7 in Kingsport at three facilities: Sevier Middle and Kennedy and Lincoln Elementary schools, which are in a 60-day trial.
Ketron, a school in Bloomingdale, houses all public elementary school students in the Sullivan North High School and North Middle School zone.
“We’re doing a school-wide breakfast program,” Ketron Principal Wendell Smith said. “Anytime you try to feed 740 in 45 minutes, that’s interesting.”
That’s the number who could eat a free school breakfast, but so far he said about 400 students have been eating breakfast since the program started Jan. 3.
The latest enrollment at the school is 741. Of those, he said, only around 220 had been eating breakfast in the fall semester, even though about 590 are eligible for free or reduced lunch.
Smith said last year he proposed Ketron have a universal free breakfast when he learned in a meeting his school was eligible because of its percentage of students eligible for free and reduced meals.
Lisa Holt, school nutrition manager for the county system, said if more free and reduced-meal eligible students eat breakfast, the school system receives extra federal reimbursement. The system also will pick up a smaller amount of federal funding for each non-free or non-reduced meal student that eats, Holt said.
“We can talk about the money,” Holt said. “But our is to get the children to eat breakfast.”
Even students who have already eaten at home can benefit from a breakfast after they get to school, and Holt said that in some schools around the country a “second-chance” breakfast is offered after first period.
Holt said studies have shown universal free breakfast increases academic performance and test scores as well as reducing visits to the school clinics or school nurses.
“I predict that Ketron is going to be very successful,” Holt said.
The Bluff City and Emmett programs, as well as the ones in the city system, work through the standard cafeteria-based breakfast program. However, at Ketron students receive a “grab and go” breakfast.
Smith said because of the larger population than most elementary schools, the kindergarten and first-graders eat in the cafeteria and those in grades two through five eat in the gym, all starting at 7:45 a.m. and ending, for the most part, when classes begin at 8:20 a.m. Holt said pre-K students get their breakfasts in the classroom.
However, Smith stays with any students who have a late bus or are stragglers.
Holt said other schools are eligible but that logistics are different at every school.
The cost of county student breakfasts are $1.50 regular price and 30 cents reduced-meal price, meaning the program can save $7.50 a week for full-price students and $1.50 a week for reduced-price ones. The city gives reduced-price-eligible students free meals. The full price is $1.40 a month or $7 a week.