AUBURN — Students Emily Fraser and Ashley Rackliff, 16, stood in the Edward Little High School cafeteria breakfast line Monday and broke into smiles.

“We don’t have to pay!” they said at the same time.

Beginning Monday, all students attending the city’s public schools could eat breakfast for free. Auburn is one of a handful of school districts in the state offering no-charge breakfast for all, regardless of income.

Auburn schools are giving out continental style breakfasts that include cereal, milk, fruit, juice and one or two other items. It’s a new effort to encourage more students, especially those who qualify for free and reduced school meals, to eat before school, Auburn Food Service Director Paula Rouillard said.

Rouillard proposed the idea to the School Committee on April 4.

Only a few schools in Maine offer free breakfasts for all, including Winthrop and the Unity area, Maine Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin said. “We support it,” he said.

Not being hungry in school helps students feel better, perform and behave, educators said.

“We know there’s a lot of kids (who qualify for free or reduced) who aren’t eating because they don’t want to be labeled,” Rouillard said. “That’s what started this.” She was pondering why Auburn’s breakfast count was so low.

A stigma from other students knowing who gets free and reduced meals keeps some out of the cafeteria, especially at the high school level, Connerty-Marin said. Offering breakfast to all eliminates that stigma, he said.

Auburn’s universal breakfast will pay for itself, and will not add any costs to taxpayers, Rouillard said. “It’s a win-win situation,” she said.

She explained the numbers. It costs Auburn $1.14 for each breakfast, and Auburn is reimbursed between $1.21 to $1.51 from the state and federal government for each student who qualifies for a free or reduced price school breakfast. The government also gives Auburn 27 cents per student for breakfast, regardless of the student’s family income.

In Auburn, 54 percent of students qualify for free or reduced meals, but only 17 percent of all students (622 out of 3,679) eat breakfast at school.

If more students who qualify for free or reduced meals eat a school breakfast, the difference between the cost and reimbursement would cover free breakfasts for other students, Rouillard said.

“Essentially it pays for itself, and it doesn’t take much more staff time,” Connerty-Marin said. Many schools provide breakfast on testing days. “If it’s good for testing, it’s good learning,” he said.

At Edward Little’s breakfast Monday, students were offered apples, Danish pastries, tubs of peanut butter made from sunflowers, orange juice, white milk, English muffins and cold cereal. Cereal choices included Raisin Bran, Corn Flakes, Special K and Apple Jacks.

At the Fairview Elementary School, students were offered fresh kiwi, white milk, juice, mini-bagel halves with cheese and egg just out of the oven and cereal. Cereal choices included Frosted Flakes, Cheerios, Kix, Cocoa Puffs, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Apple Jacks, Trix and Golden Grahams.

High school student Isaac Torres, 16, said he doesn’t think it’s a good idea to give free breakfast to all. “People can just eat at their house,” he said. “People who actually need it should come here and eat.”

Others students said they favor free food.

Some kids need free breakfast but aren’t allowed to get it, said Samantha Whitten, 15. “Now they are.”

Heathr Delisle, 16, and her brother, Justin Delisle, 17, said more students will eat breakfast who before went without. “I can’t eat when I first wake up. I have to have a little while, then I’m hungry.”

Vada Ritchie, 14, said breakfast at school is a good idea, because some students don’t have time to eat at home. “If you eat breakfast you’re more energized,” she said.

Auburn’s free breakfasts will continue through the rest of the school year, and will be evaluated before continued in the fall, Rouillard said. She hopes to double the number of students eating school breakfasts.

Early numbers indicate free breakfasts will make a difference. On Monday 724 ate breakfast at school, compared to March 21 when 621 students did.

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