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The Telegraph Avenue McDonald's opens to serve breakfast in the early morning. Photo by Erika Alvero.

McDonald’s offers kids a free breakfast for the start of school

on September 17, 2015

By 7:30 a.m., the trickle of customers at the McDonald’s restaurant on Telegraph in North Oakland had turned into a stream. Middle-aged men clustered in booths to mingle and chat; a few remained solo with tablets and phones in hand. One grey-haired woman abruptly stood up after eating for a few minutes, realizing aloud that she had usurped the usual table of a retired gentleman, who joked that he had “seniority.” Adults with children began to enter the restaurant, some clutching vouchers for a free breakfast.

Tuesday was McDonald’s Back-to-School Free Breakfast Day, an annual event for the McDonald’s of the Bay Area. Students in kindergarten through eighth grade were eligible to receive a free Egg McMuffin, apple slices and low fat milk. Students under the age of 13 needed to be accompanied by a parent, and the promotion lasted from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.

“Our free back-to-school breakfast program is a great way to engage with our local community and provide a delicious and convenient meal for busy families during the start of back-to-school,” wrote Lee Ann Freeman, who represents Bay Area McDonalds owners, in an email to Oakland North[EA1] . “We all know that breakfast is such an important meal, especially for our young students, and McDonald’s provides plenty of options for families who want variety.”

According to Food Business News, the franchise has begun an initiative to feature seasonal produce on their menus, in addition to the standard apple slices that already accompany children’s Happy Meals. “Cuties,” or California clementines, were added to the list of side options for Happy Meals in December 2014. The company also began testing bananas at selected locations, all part of a company initiative, through a partnership with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, to increase kids’ access to fruits and vegetables.

On Tuesday morning, Dexter Jones was picking up an iced coffee at the Telegraph Avenue McDonald’s in Oakland, en route to dropping off his fourth grade son Joshua at Montclair Elementary School. For him, the back-to-school promotion came as a surprise. When asked if he would take advantage of this offer were it held more often, he said, “I would take advantage of it for certain, because I come here several times a week to get coffee. So if there were more offers like this, that would provide a nourishing meal for him, before he goes to school, I think so.”

María Ceja found out about the promotion because she works at the McDonald’s on Telegraph. Her sixth grade daughter Aracely was the first student to redeem a voucher at that McDonald’s, carrying her paper bag with the signature golden “M” on the front out to her minivan ride to school, while Ceja stayed to work her shift.

After that, students were scarce until about 8:30, when harried-looking parents, accompanied by two to four children, dashed in to redeem their vouchers and hurried out.

But McDonald’s is not the only place in Oakland where students can get a free breakfast. The schools in Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) offer meals on a daily basis, from breakfast to lunch to other snacks throughout the day. “A child could conceivably eat five meals with us,” said Joyce Peters, registered dietician and nutrition educator in OUSD, in a phone interview.

Many students in the OUSD qualify for free or reduced price school meals. According to OUSD statistics, in the 2014-2015 school year, 73.4 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced price lunch and breakfast.

Eating a healthy breakfast is one of the nutritional challenges students face today, said Peters. “If you look at Oakland, we have the highest rate of diabetes in the county,” she said. “So many of our students come from homes where there is a relative with diabetes. And their risk of getting it is pretty high, compared to other parts of the county or other parts of the state. Those are kind of critical things that we’re very concerned about.”

Breakfast presents a particular problem, she said, because it is crucial for students to “be able to think, and concentrate on their schoolwork.”

Peters lists other concerns of the OUSD nutritional services department regarding students’ nutrition outside of school: students eating too much processed food, students snacking all night and not eating breakfast, students having limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and students suffering from hunger. The OUSD Nutritional Services department takes these factors into account, along with federal regulations, when designing school meals, in order to ensure that during the day, students are eating the nutrients that they may or may not be consuming outside of school.

“Our food is nutritional,” said Peters. “Whether it’s what the student wants or not is a different story.”

The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, federal legislation signed by President Barack Obama in 2010, required drastic changes for school meals, including a stipulation that all students take a fruit or vegetable at both breakfast and lunch, said Peters. The district has been working hard to promote fresh fruits and vegetables, exemplified by programs like “Harvest of the Month,” in which schools highlight a seasonal fruit or vegetable, both in the cafeteria and in class lessons. This September features squash, though the program will not really begin until October, at which time the tomato will take the limelight in classroom taste tests, at produce stands, and in the school gardens.

Peters was not familiar with the promotional event held at McDonald’s on Tuesday, but said she hoped that the franchise focused on the idea of eating breakfast in general, not necessarily a McDonald’s breakfast. “In general, I would say, McDonald’s really put breakfast on the map, in terms of marketing it to adults,” she said. “They did a really good job of promoting it across the board.”

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