West Covina OKs School Breakfast Program : Education: Rancorous debate precedes 3-1 vote by district board. Reports of children too hungry to learn prompted the action.

TIMES URBAN AFFAIRS WRITER

Capping a weeks-long uproar over reports that some schoolchildren were coming to class too hungry to learn, the West Covina school board Tuesday voted for the first time in district history to take advantage of a longstanding government breakfast program.

The 3-1 vote by the West Covina Unified School District trustees followed more than an hour of rancorous debate over whether the schools, in grappling with a growing number of hungry children in the classroom, should assume a responsibility many in the conservative district felt belongs to parents.

In the end, board members said the program was necessary and long overdue.

"If we are going to break the poverty cycle of these kids, we have to feed them," said trustee Pete Sabatino. "To learn, they have to have full tummies."

Although federally funded breakfasts for low-income students have long been available to school districts, thousands of schools nationwide have not taken advantage. Last month, in a series of articles in The Times on hunger that highlighted the situation, West Covina's Edgewood Middle School was profiled as an example of the 193 schools in Southern California that do not offer breakfast even though they have high proportions of needy children.

Since then, many of the schools--including eight in West Covina--have joined a recent rush to apply for the program, administered by the state Education Department largely with federal dollars.

Most schools that offer breakfast fully recoup their costs through government reimbursements, a California study showed.

The West Covina vote followed weeks of soul-searching and public debate for members of the suburban San Gabriel Valley community. At least one group took matters into their own hands in the wake of The Times' series, mobilizing their own, private breakfast effort at Edgewood Middle School.

Others stood firm in their philosophical opposition to such programs. Although the school breakfast issue had been brought up before in the district, faculty, administrators and one board member had contended that the board did not implement the program earlier because of its conservative philosophy regarding the role of schools.

Board President Mike Spence, who has contended in the past that subsidized school breakfasts are anti-family, reiterated his opposition Tuesday night in casting the lone no vote.

"I realize what I'm saying isn't politically correct," Spence said. "But for the last 40 years, we have spent bazillions on anti-poverty and anti-hunger programs and it hasn't helped."

Spence said programs such as the private breakfast initiative were more appropriate for the community, and that Tuesday's vote will only create a dependency by the district on a program that may be slashed in the near future. The new Republican majority in Congress, in its "contract with America," has said it will terminate federal child nutrition programs and turn them over to the states, with sizable funding cuts.

Moreover, Spence said, he recently visited a San Gabriel Valley school that has a government breakfast program and was "sickened" to see how much food is thrown away by children. He said the program is riddled with fraud because parents' declaration of income on the application form goes unchecked.

However, the majority of letters to the board and speakers Tuesday disagreed with Spence. One kindergarten student wrote simply, "I hope you never have to go hungry."

Edgewood parent Mercedes Gil urged the board "to nourish not only (children's) bodies, but allow teachers to nourish their minds."

Another resident, teacher Barbara Evleth, said: "We get a hefty tax bill from the federal government. I want my tax dollars to be spent here, on the children of West Covina."

The vote left longtime proponents of the program feeling vindicated. The district hopes to have subsidized breakfasts operating by Feb. 1 at eight of West Covina Unified's 11 schools.

"There are a lot of people against Big Brother," Sabatino said.

"But it's a social necessity for these underprivileged students. You can't get out of poverty if you can't get an education, and you can't get an education if you are hungry. It's basic."

Tony Reymann, who calls himself the board's lone liberal, said he is elated. "Some people call it bad press. I call it an awakening to get these guys (his fellow board members) on to the fact that West Covina does have hungry children," he said.

Reymann, who teaches in El Monte's Valle Lindo School District, said he grappled with hungry children in his classroom before his school began a breakfast program several years ago. He fed them apples and oranges.

"Not having kids hungry makes them more alert in the morning, more eager to learn," Reymann said. Last month, he donated his $240 monthly school board stipend to the private effort to feed children breakfast at Edgewood Middle School.

Meanwhile, Edgewood Principal Cathy Makin said the school--which received more than 500 calls in the two weeks after publication of the story--continues to receive assistance. On Tuesday night, the school received a $5,000 donation from Kaiser Permanente for the private breakfast program, and the school has counted $7,500 in other large donations, including $5,000 from Citrus Valley Health Partners, parent company of Queen of the Valley Hospital in West Covina. Another $10,000 pledge has not yet been received, and the school has not tallied a flurry of individual donations, Makin said.

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Times staff writer Shawn Hubler contributed to this story.

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