When students in Phenix City Public Schools start the 2013-14 school year Monday, all of them -- regardless of their family's income -- can receive a free breakfast in the cafeteria each school day, thanks to a federal pilot program.
Brindlea Griffin, the district's child nutrition director, expects offering the free morning meal to significantly increase last school year's participation rate of 36 percent in Phenix City's breakfast program.
"I hope we double it," said Griffin, who was appointed in June to a three-year term as president of the child nutrition directors division in the Council of Leaders in Alabama Schools.
A good breakfast helps produce good students, Griffin said.
"If we increase our breakfast numbers," she said, "we'll have less tardies, better attendance and less visits to the school nurse."
Griffin figures the free breakfast also could increase the participation rate of 71 percent in the lunch program.
"When breakfast is free," she said, "it helps the parents better afford lunch."
School districts must have at least 60 percent of their students eligible for free or reduced-price meals to qualify for the universal breakfast pilot program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Phenix City is at 81 percent, Griffin said.
The pilot program isn't a grant; it is based on monthly reimbursements for each breakfast served. But grants have been a major part of better nutrition in Phenix City schools. Since 2006, when Griffin became director, the district has received more than $800,000 in grants.
"Dr. Griffin, she wants us to be the best in the United States," said Phenix City superintendent Larry DiChiara. "She keeps us ahead of the curve."
That includes providing fresh fruit and vegetable snacks four days per week in the elementary schools. Cafeteria workers bring the healthy treats to the classrooms on carts. DiChiara especially was wowed by a grapple -- an apple that tastes like a grape.
"I hope I don't glow in the dark," he said with a laugh, although the folks who produce grapples insist they aren't genetically modified.
DiChiara, however, has several other reasons to glow as the new school year is about to start:
The district continues to grow, adding an average of about 200 students each of the past nine years and ending last school year at 6,850, he said. He predicts enrolment this school year will break 7,000.
Construction is keeping up with the growth. He will ask the school board at Tuesday's meeting to approve the low bid on a $1.4 million addition of 12 classrooms at Lakewood Primary School for kindergarten and first grade.
A renovation worth about $650,000 at South Girard School for eighth-graders will allow the school to celebrate its 50 years in style. The project is still two weeks from finishing, so folks will have to use the side entrance the first week of school, he said.