Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, has covered state government and politics for more than 30 years.

A champion for breakfasts

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: April 1, 2014 - 4:37 PM

State Sen. Alice Johnson has been the champion of breakfasts for Minnesota school children through two legislative careers. The Spring Lake Park DFLer is working hard to secure $7.25 million in surplus dollars to provide free breakfasts for all Minnesota school children. She'll learn at Thursday's Senate Finance Committee meeting whether her persistence has paid off.

Free school breakfasts are a project she began 20 years ago in part one of her two-part legislative career. Johnson served 14 years in the House, from 1986 to 2000, including a stint as chair of the K-12 funding committee.

She returned as a senator in 2013, and discovered to her surprise and dismay that she could pick up where she left off on school breakfasts. The positive results of a six-site, three-year pilot project she pushed through the 1994 Legislaturs had been ignored during her hiatus from the Capitol.

That's a shame, Johnson said, because those results should have compelled action. They showed that if all children were offered free breakfast, nearly all children participated. Today, only students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches are offered free breakfasts. Only about half of eligible students participate. The pilot project analysis pointed to one reason: the stigma of a subsidized meal is counter-productive.

When all students ate breakfast in their classrooms, attentiveness and behavior through the day improved. School nurse visits declined in number. And test scores improved, as judged by the scores of sixth graders who were offered free school breakfasts compared with their own performances as third graders, when free breakfasts were only available to a few.

Providing free school breakfasts "offers the best return on any investment in closing the achievement gap," Johnson says. She's even made a video to sell the idea.

Free school breakfasts for all are among a number of policy ideas that were advancing at the state Capitol in the late 1990s, then slowed or halted by two recessions, recurring deficits and partisan discord. Now that the state budget is in the black again, Johnson may be back at the Legislature at just the right time.

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