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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

A weekend interview with Mary Kate Harrison, Hillsborough schools food and nutrition services director



School Breakfast Week begins Monday, and FCAT testing starts Tuesday. In many ways, the two go hand-in-glove. How often do we hear the advice that kids should have a healthy meal before taking the annual exam in order to stay focused, after all? Mary Kate Harrison, food and nutrition services director for Hillsborough schools, spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about the connections.

So this is breakfast week, in the middle of nutrition month, as we're trying to readopt child nutrition standards, right?

Well, we're working toward getting the Child Nutrition Act reauthorized. It is reauthorized every few years. We are hoping with that reauthorization we will get national nutrition standards.

Why is that important?

It's important to try to have consistent standards from one state to another. We already have federal standards in our lunchrooms. Those of us who get federal funds, we have to have a certain type of meal. But with that being said, we're also trying to make the meals more nutrient dense. We're trying to offer more fresh items, whole grains and those types of items. And those typically cost more dollars. Those requirements are not in the present nutrition standards. In the new standards, they would require us to offer whole grains. It would require us to offer fresh items. ...

Also, about 38 states in the country -- and Florida is not one of them -- have come up with their own state standards that can be more rigorous than the federal standards. And that has caused a lot of confusion, especially for manufacturers who sell things from one state to another.

All of this then, is trying to make sure that kids are eating healthier wherever they are.

Yes. And we think the standards for a child in Maine should be the same for a child in Florida should be the same for a child in Nevada and so forth. And states have gone through a lot of hoops to get their own standards. ... We all have professional nutrition standards. But we hope they are not only relevant to the lunch room. We hope those standards will also be able to be pushed to the whole school environment.

So that would mean no more cupcakes and cookies for snacks?

It might.

We're heard about that for a long time.

It may mean that there are more ... you know, it's not the issue of the vending machines. It's more the issue of what we are selling. Can we replace candy bars with fresh fruit? Can we replace chips with walnuts? Absolutely, we can. I think it's important to remember our schools want to send consistent messages to children, no matter whether it's in the classroom or the school cafeteria.

What's to stop parents from sending a lunchbox filled with Doritos and, you name it, cookies?

Nothing. All I can say is, it starts at home.

Speaking of starting at home, I know this dovetails into getting ready for exams. I know I've talked to you before about how in getting ready for FCAT, what you do the night before and what you have for breakfast ... makes a difference. Can you talk about that?

One thing we do in Hillsborough, which I think does make us unique, is we give the free universal breakfast program from the first day of school to the end. We're encouraging kids to eat breakfast every single day so they can do better in the classroom. So it's important every day of the school year. But obviously it's really critical during exam week because breakfast is going to help them concentrate better, stay focused. Our breakfast, we try to make sure we have complex carbohydrates, whole grains and a protein, all of which are needed to make the brain work a little bit better. So hopefully all of those things are going to help our kids. And we have really high participation during FCAT week. ...

When they come and they don't take breakfast, is there something that schools are supposed to do to make sure they're offered it again? I know some kids just roll up 3 minutes before school starts.

You're right. They do. We have left it to school by school on doing some things with tardy students. Students who are tardy of their own will, some schools will have sack breakfasts for them. Other schools won't. They don't want to encourage a child to be tardy. If it's a late bus, they all get fed. ...

Is there anything else that is done during the FCAT? ... Not just a grilled cheese sandwich but something different?

I don't think we do too much different. We've still got certain standards we have to meet every day. ... We do offer a mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack, depending on who is taking their exam when. It's at a school's discretion. ...

How important generally speaking would you say nutrition is to schooling overall?

Critical. I think we're just one cog in the wheel that makes success for the children in the classroom a possibility. I would love to think that all children got a well-balanced breakfast before they left home and they only had a 10 minute ride to school. But that's just not reality. Kids from all walks of life need to start off the day with breakfast. And research is showing that they're not doing it at home. So if we can help them get their day off to a good start, and also provide lunch -- it is shown a child is getting over half their calories and half their nutrients from school every day -- I think we are doing a good job in helping that child stay focused and concentrating on his classroom studies. Of course, it also makes it easier for the teacher to teach. I just think we're part of the day's education. ... We support what all of those teachers are doing every day.

And they can't teach kids who are grumpy and angry because they're hungry, that's for sure.

They really can't. When I get an argument from an adult, I say, Just think for 30 seconds how you feel when you are hungry. You know. Adults can be just so irritable when they're hungry. And the problem with kids when they are hungry is they don't know how to channel that very well, or control it. And they take it out in classrooms. You've got more disruptive children. ... I think as we continue in our quest to give more nutrition to our kids and more access to our programs ... we continue get more support from our administrators and teachers and they see it as a real viable part of the day. That has grown. It didn't come overnight. But I think it's getting more and more accepted that we're a big part of the day's education.

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 10:52am]


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