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MARINA DEL REY : Group Exhorts Students to ‘Start Their Heads’ With Breakfast

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They’ve been there. Many of them have done that. So 300 students at Marina del Rey Junior High quickly got the message as they watched commercials on the perils of missing breakfast.

They laughed as a teen-age girl in one commercial, her eyes glazing over, watched her teacher’s body transform into a giant bagel. In another spot, a chorus of grumbling stomachs drowned out the teacher’s history lecture.

The point was clear: Skip breakfast and you’ll be too busy thinking about lunch to pay attention in class.

The students were the test audience for a set of commercials aimed at promoting breakfast for those in junior high and high school. The “Start Your Head” campaign is sponsored by the Southern California Interfaith Hunger Coalition, a Los Angeles-based educational and advocacy organization.

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The group kicked off the campaign at the school, using the videos and an appearance by superstar Stevie Wonder to educate students about the importance of breakfast. The group has taken the message throughout Los Angeles County, concentrating on schools in Inglewood and the Pico-Union area.

“What we’re doing with the schools is emphasizing to the kids that they should eat breakfast,” said Frank Tamborello, a child nutrition specialist with the coalition, founded in 1974. The organization, which has branches in major cities nationwide, has conducted extensive research on childhood hunger since 1987.

Tamborello said most students do not understand the importance of eating breakfast. “Only 50% of the students we surveyed made a connection between what they ate and what they learned,” he said.

On the other hand, student athletes clearly made the connection between nutrition and performance. Youths who didn’t eat breakfast, Tamborello said, complained of headaches, grouchiness and an inability to pay attention.

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Hunger is typically associated with low-income children, Tamborello said. But the problem cuts across economic lines. The breakfast programs offered at most schools, he said, are for all students, but many students still do not eat breakfast.

At Marina del Rey, only 51% of the 676 students eligible for the free breakfast participate in the program, said Warren Lund, the director of food services for the Los Angeles Unified School District. In addition, only 7% of those eligible for reduced price meals take advantage of the program.

“When they get to junior high school and high school age, some kids just don’t want to eat,” said Edna Overstreet, the school’s director of food services.

Carolyn Olney, the assistant director of the Interfaith Hunger Coalition, said the commercials, which were produced by the Washington Food Policy Action Center, may soon be aired on MTV. Tamborello said this approach--using teen-agers to spread the message--is more effective than hearing nutritional information from others.

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“If they’re telling each other breakfast is cool, instead of hearing it from parents and teachers, that will have more impact and they’ll react to the message,” Tamborello said.

Meanwhile, the organization is preparing to challenge GOP efforts to make cuts in federal nutrition programs by handing over the administration of such programs to the states. If those plans succeed, Tamborello said, some states may have to drop breakfast and lunch programs, “which would roll back the gains we have made.”


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