Governor pushes anti-hunger program at Bensley
Breakfast is not a meal taken lightly at Bensley Elementary School. Bessie Cooper, Bensley’s longtime principal, knows that if they didn’t have access to breakfast at school, many of her students would go hungry until lunch.
More than 90 percent of students at the northeastern Chesterfield school qualify for free or reduced-price meals, eligibility for which is based on federal thresholds for household income.
On a typical school day, the food services staff at Bensley serves between 450 and 500 breakfasts, which is three times the daily average at the county’s other 61 schools.
“I know my kids depend on that breakfast,” Cooper said during an interview last week. “The opportunity is there and they take advantage of it, which is great.”
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and his wife, Dorothy, got a firsthand glimpse of Bensley’s “Breakfast After the Bell” program last Thursday when they visited to kick off National School Breakfast Week.
The first lady has made finding solutions to childhood hunger one of her top priorities over the past three years.
According to the 2016 School Breakfast Report published by Virginia Hunger Solutions, an initiative of the Virginia Poverty Law Center to fight hunger and improve nutrition, the commonwealth’s 132 public school systems served breakfast to 57 low-income students for every 100 who participated in school lunch between October 2014 and October 2015.
That represents an increase of nearly four percentage points from the previous 12 months. “We’re working hard to make sure the kids in need are getting the food they need in order to reach their potential,” Dorothy McAuliffe said.
Studies indicate that regularly eating breakfast has several positive effects for children, including improved academic performance and behavior, a healthier overall diet and reduced instances of truancy.
At one point during his remarks to students assembled in Bensley’s gymnasium, Gov. McAuliffe struck a bodybuilder’s pose and said with a smile, “You can’t get pipes like these unless you eat breakfast.”
Virginia State University football coach Reggie Barlow, who accompanied the McAuliffes on their visit, observed, “Not only are kids eating, but they understand why. The answers they gave about what breakfast does for them during the day were outstanding.”
Under the “Breakfast After the Bell” program, most Bensley students who eat school breakfast pick up their food and take it to eat in their classrooms. When the first bell rings at 8:30 a.m., students are sitting at their desks and ready to start the day.
“We get them in and out [of the cafeteria] and it works smoothly,” Cooper said. “It doesn’t affect instruction time.”
As Bermuda District School Board member Carrie Coyner noted, Chesterfield’s demographics have changed over the past few years – particularly along the northern Jefferson Davis Highway corridor, which has a poverty rate significantly higher than the county overall.
Bensley has the highest percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches of any Chesterfield school. It also has a significant number of Latino students who don’t speak English as their native language, but it still consistently manages to rank among the county’s top elementary schools on standardized tests.
“We’ve seen an increase in the number of our lower-income households and that puts stress on kids,” Coyner said. “They show up for the school day with those burdens, so we look at it as our role to help them have the best day they can. That starts with breakfast in the morning.” ¦