LAS VEGAS — When Jeana Cheney, PTA president at Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School, learned her school started a new government-funded breakfast program last fall, she didn’t think her children would be served “cake for breakfast.”

“Serving kids chocolate, cinnamon rolls, sugar — that’s not the right way to feed them,” said Cheney. “On the days when we have the cinnamon roll option, you would get less carbohydrates and sugar from a 32-ounce Slurpee than you would from what they offer the children.”

MLK Jr. Elementary is one of 76 elementary schools in the Clark County School District piloting a universal-breakfast program this year, and the program has been criticized by both parents and teachers. Parents say the district is usurping their parental rights and serving unhealthy food, while teachers say the program cuts at least 40 minutes of instructional time out of the school day.

Beatriz Rubio, president of the Ronzone Elementary school PTA, is another parent who dislikes the universal-breakfast program. She finds the schools’ assumption of responsibility for her child’s eating habits arrogant and patronizing.

“What is going to be next?” she asked CCSD trustees during the Jan. 26 board meeting. “Bring your kids, we’re going to give them a shower?”

“I don’t think the school needs to be taking [responsibility] away from the parents. It just makes it more difficult for the parents, the school, and the kids,” said Rubio.

“I had to change how I fed my kids because they were getting their sugar fix at school in the morning, and we [parents] shouldn’t have to adjust to a program we don’t necessarily want,” Cheney said.

The program replaced CCSD’s old breakfast program, which provided government-funded meals only for certain in-need students who signed up. By contrast, the new program serves meals to every student, regardless of need, and has no waiver clause for parents wishing to opt-out.

The United States Department of Agriculture reimburses CCSD’s Food Services department for each meal, but Virginia Beck, the department’s assistant director of procurement and production, cannot specify a total cost for the pilot program. The Nevada Department of Education says that the previous, non-universal breakfast programs operated by CCSD cost over $9 million annually.

CCSD Trustee Erin Cranor says the goal of the new program is to ensure every student starts the day with a full stomach. 

“Unfortunately, we have way too many students in our district showing up for school who haven’t eaten,” she said in a recent interview with Nevada Journal, “and we felt that was a major problem we needed to address.”

At a Jan. 26, 2012 board meeting, however, Cranor, responding to public comments about the universal breakfast, blamed state lawmakers for the program, saying: “That is one example of a state law that I think was well intentioned, and felt good for state legislators to pass, that’s actually had a negative impact.”

The legislation she was referring to, which would have required school districts to provide a free breakfast program for all students, was vetoed by Gov. Brian Sandoval, however. And CCSD cited its own proposed program as a reason for opposing the bill, AB 137.

Beck, who testified against AB 137 on behalf of the district, defended the CCSD program and the meals’ nutritional value, telling Nevada Journal all meals must adhere to USDA guidelines.

“Our breakfast must provide a certain amount of calories. It can’t go under, it can’t go over,” Beck said in an interview. “It has to be low in fat, low in saturated fat, no trans fat, low sugar, and it has to provide a certain amount of the vitamins and minerals the students need as well.”

Parents, though, are concerned that district officials are apparently indifferent to the impact of high-sugar foods on children’s health.

“They need to realize that some of these kids have ADHD and are diabetic,” said Monique Keller. “They’re not addressing any of these issues.” Her grandchildren attend MLK Jr. Elementary.

Teachers, too, have spoken out at school board meetings, saying the program wastes up to 40 minutes of instructional time every morning.

“I just don’t know why they can’t do [the program] before teacher and instructional time in the morning,” said Peg Bean, a special-education teacher at Ronzone Elementary. “We had an old, optional program that seemed to work better and took up much less time.”

Cranor admitted as much during the Jan. 26 board meeting, saying during public comments about the breakfast program: “It’s shortened our school day, in effect.”

According to Cheney, several teachers at her school have told her in private that the program can cut up to two hours of instructional time out of the week, but are afraid to speak on the record in fear of retaliation from the district.

“I’ve spoken with teachers about lots of issues aside from just the class time,” Cheney said. “Kids become too hyper from the sugar, they play with the food, and they throw out tons of uneaten food they’re forced to take but don’t want.” 

Kristi Watson, an art teacher with CCSD, said at a Sept. 8 board meeting last year that tossed out, uneaten foods contributes an additional 3,000 plastic trash bags per week, reflecting poorly on the district’s “green” image.

“Ironically, right now, I’m teaching about the conservation of the oceans, and one of my third graders raised their hand and said, ‘What about all the plastic bags?’” Watson told the board.

Beck says she understands the criticism, but blames most of the criticism on teachers being under pressure to raise test scores.

“Everyone’s under a lot of pressure,” Beck said. “With that being said, the teachers don’t want to take away from instructional time, but many teachers are also creative in the way they handle the breakfast and are thankful the students are full and more apt to do their work.”

Cranor said trustees don’t have a formal timeline for reassessing the program, but said it would probably happen when the students were on summer vacation.

“Any new program is going to have its positives and negatives, and we’ve heard parties discuss both aspects,” she said. “It goes back to asking how can we ensure students aren’t coming to school hungry, and how can we ensure students are prepared to learn in the morning.”

In that regard, Cheney has some blunt advice for the district: 

“If you want to feed the children, don’t be a hero.”

Kyle Gillis is a reporter for Nevada Journal, a publication of the Nevada Policy Research Institute. Karen Gray, a reporter/researcher for Nevada Journal, contributed to this report. For more in-depth reporting, visit http://nevadajournal.com/ and http://npri.org/.