May 25, 2005 - It's 10 minutes before 9 a.m. on a Wednesday inside Cindy Gumfory's fifth-grade classroom at Roadrunner Elementary School and already students are doing homework while snacking on animal crackers and their choice of Fruit Loops or Honey Smacks cereal.

Gumfory's students account for only a couple dozen of the 500 or so students who are greeted each morning with free breakfast goodies and snacks inside their classrooms.

Called "Breakfast in the Classroom," it's a program the Marana Unified School District piloted this year at Roadrunner, one of the district's highest-need elementary schools. The program serves about 500 free breakfasts each day to students who might not otherwise get a decent meal in the morning, said James Remete, the district's food services director.

"There's so many benefits to the whole thing," he said. "From our point of view, it's been a good success and we're looking forward to next year."

The district's governing board gave approval earlier this month to continue the program at Roadrunner and expand the program into Desert Winds and Estes elementary schools next year. The program will kick off at Estes Sept. 21 and at Desert Winds Oct. 6, delivering an estimated 700 additional breakfasts each day.

Roadrunner Principal Michael Hitchcock said he's welcomed the program to his school with open arms.

"You walk in and to know all kids have breakfast and they can start their day on a positive note, I think it's wonderful," he said.

Every day brings a new surprise, but some of the breakfast items students have seen this year include cereal, pastries, breakfast corn dogs, crackers, cookies, fruits, granola bars, pancakes, waffles, eggs, sausage, biscuits, yogurt and pizza.

It's a program that essentially pays for itself using federal reimbursement dollars the school receives for having such a large percentage of students qualifying for free- and reduced-price lunches, Remete said.

For the program to remain self-sustaining, it requires a school's free and reduced population to be at least 70 percent, he said.

Students provided a free breakfast appear more alert and attentive in class, seek fewer visits to the school nurse office and are less likely to be tardy to school, teachers said.

Lasting only about 10 minutes, the brief breakfast period has become a routine for students in Gumfory's class, who eat at their own desks and clean up their own messes.

Concetta Franck said the program has proven to be beneficial for her second grade students, who now complain less about having stomachaches.

"I love the breakfast program. I have nothing but good things to say about it," she said.

Last year, Franck said, several students started getting stomachaches right before lunch because they were getting so hungry. Now, students are able to save their leftover snacks throughout the day, which also saves Franck some additional money in her classroom budget.

Remete said the district intentionally made sure students are provided some kind of a packaged snack, such as crackers or cookies, so they can snack on them later in the day if they get hungry.

"It's thrilling as a district that we're able to meet the nutritional needs of our students and start their day off healthy," said Tamara Crawley, the district's community relations coordinator.

The program is administered by cafeteria staff members who deliver hot and cold food boxes directly to the classrooms each morning. Remete estimated the program costs about $300 daily at Roadrunner, but that cost is made up for in federal reimbursements.

Remete said he piloted the program at Roadrunner with the idea that, if it could succeed at the district's largest elementary school, then it could be expanded into other schools.

Picture Rocks Intermediate School, another of the district's high-need schools, could potentially see the program in its classrooms by the middle of next school year, Remete said, but the numbers are still being crunched.

"Unfortunately you can't get it into every school," he said. "We were able to do it out here because we have such a high free number. It's a program designed to help the severe-need schools."

Crunching the numbers for an elementary school that isn't in high need, Remete said starting the program would put the district thousands of dollars in the red, which isn't an option district officials have favored yet.

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