Feds to pay for breakfast
JANESVILLE The Janesville School District plans to take over the free-breakfast programs run by churches and other volunteer groups for many years.
The announcement has raised questions and consternation among volunteers.
School officials said Wednesday they still welcome volunteers in the schools, and they expect that the federal Universal Free Breakfast program will pay the entire cost of the school-run breakfast program.
The move affects breakfast clubs at Adams, Jackson, Jefferson, Madison, Roosevelt, Washington and Wilson elementary schools.
Jackson, Madison and Wilson schools also have the federal breakfast program running side-by side with the clubs. Four elementary schools that don't have free breakfast now will offer it under the federal program.
Officials don't keep track of how many students use the breakfast clubs, but it appears numbers easily run into the hundreds each school day.
The district is telling organizations that run the clubs that the district will take over the purchase, preparation and serving of food to children each morning starting Jan. 28.
"However, there will still be a significant need to help with the supervision and mentoring of the students along with providing daily role models to our children," according to a letter sent Friday.
The letter asks "our valued volunteers" to contact their schools to let officials know whether they would continue to help with breakfast.
School board members and The Gazette have heard from volunteers who were surprised by the change.
"There are quite a few people upset about it," longtime volunteer Verne Vollrath said.
Officials said federal per-student reimbursements would cover all costs. They could provide no estimate of how much the cost would be.
Vollrath understands that the change won't add to the local property tax levy.
"But whose money is it? It's our money that goes through Washington, and some gets siphoned off, and some of it comes back to us," Vollrath said. "To me, it's just a horrible thing."
District Finance Director Keith Pennington and Food Services Director Jim Degan told The Gazette that the federal program offers a way to deliver nutritious meals, and the paid staff can do the job without the few health-code violations that some of the programs have seen.
Rock County environmental health officer Tim Banwell said the breakfast programs at these schools all get high scores, although some have had minor violations.
Banwell checked the most recent reports and found violations that included a refrigerator that kept milk at 47 degrees instead of the required 41 degrees and storage shelves with bare wood or ceiling tiles that should be replaced with smooth, non-absorbent surfaces.
"We've been really happy with the way the schools are run," Banwell said.
Federal nutrition standards were revised recently in response to the national obesity epidemic, Degan said, so more fruits and vegetables are required than in the past. Workers also control for fat, calories, sugar and sodium.
Breakfast clubs are not specifically mentioned in the new federal standards, but regulations refer to all the food served during a school day, Degan said.
"We want to be responsible for those restrictions because we are responsible for the whole food area," Pennington said.
Asked whether the breakfast clubs are providing too much sugar or carbohydrates, Pennington said it's possible, but the district doesn't monitor what the clubs serve.
The change might require a small increase in food-service hours or employees, but labor costs are minimal because much of the food is grab-and-go, Degan said.
Workers who are already at the schools preparing midday snacks or lunch can carry much of the load, officials said. Volunteers are needed to help kids open packages, sit with them and perhaps do some cleaning, but school workers will handle the rest, officials said.
The district's three middle schools switched to the federal program last year, and numbers of students doubled or tripled, Degan said.
Also getting federally funded breakfast are Rock River and TAGOS charter schools and Lincoln Elementary School. The change will bring the program to all 12 elementary schools.
Vollrath and others said the breakfast clubs have cash reserves from donations. It appears those reserves could add up to thousands of dollars.
Pennington said the clubs are free to find another use for the money.
Some clubs have bought equipment, and Pennington said it belongs to the clubs.
Pennington emphasized volunteers are more than welcome to help out at schools, either in the breakfast program or elsewhere in the schools. Those interested should contact the school's office.
Most Janesville school breakfast clubs started in the early to mid-1990s, according to Gazette files.
The Wilson Elementary School club is the granddaddy of them all. It started in 1989 and was first housed at First Congregational Church.