CHICAGO - For most school kids, a bowl of cereal and milk or a hot egg sandwich on a neighbor's desk would be no big deal.
But for students with food allergies like first-grader Nathan Sodolski, splashed milk or spilled egg on his desk could result in hives or even a trip to the hospital.
In January, the Chicago Board of Education passed a blanket mandate requiring free breakfast to be served in all elementary school classrooms during the first 15 minutes of the day. Since then, hundreds of parents have signed petitions and sent letters objecting, including those who fear their children would be exposed to life-threatening foods.
"It was unbelievable to me that they would suggest bringing all those allergens into the classroom," said Nathan's mother, Cindi Sodolski. "But when I realized that this policy isn't going away I decided we have to speak up."
Other complaints include lost class time (about 45 school hours a year), kids eating a second breakfast unapproved by parents and huge amounts of food and packaging waste. All the parents who spoke to the Tribune said they strongly support feeding hungry kids but believe there are better and safer ways to do it, such as promoting the free breakfasts now served in some school cafeterias before class.
The school board passed the measure less than 72 hours after many parents and principals discovered it on the meeting agenda. By then they had already collected more than 1,000 signatures opposing it.
Several parents showed up at another board meeting last week to offer emotional appeals for the district to rethink the safety and wisdom of the program.
Nancy Huetteman, whose 9-year-old son is allergic to nuts, cited the death of a seventh-grader who suffered a severe allergic reaction to peanut oil in take-out food ordered for a class party late last year.
"Why we are going to risk the death of another CPS student because of allergies is beyond me," said Huetteman, a mother of three Bell Elementary students.
Breakfast in the Classroom programs have been rolling out across the nation for several years now, but Chicago's mandate is the biggest, fastest and strictest in the nation. In some Colorado schools, administrators addressed the class time issue by starting the day 15 minutes earlier. In Washington, D.C., and San Diego they required the program only for schools with poverty levels higher than 40 percent and 80 percent, respectively.
Chicago parents and principals from higher-income schools - the source of most of the opposition - have asked for similar considerations, but CPS has offered little change.
District spokeswoman Monique Bond said the breakfast program, scheduled to roll out to 491 schools by June, has been going well in those that have already adopted it.
"We have been extremely pleased with the three-year implementation process in over 200 schools," Bond said. "As a result of our outreach with parents, principals and students we have gained valuable feedback and continue to improve our program."
She noted that officials had agreed after meeting with parents not to serve peanut products at breakfast.
But Sodolski said she was outraged when she heard that officials at the meeting had indicated that students, not adults, will clean the desks after breakfast. That, she said, would violate her son's mandated 504 Plan to accommodate his allergy, considered a disability.
"When I heard that they suggested kids wash tables to make cleanup time fun I thought, 'They just don't get it,'" said Sodolski, whose son attends Bell.
Dr. Kelly Newhall at the Chicago Family Asthma and Allergy medical practice said the classroom breakfasts are especially risky for young children "because egg, milk and wheat allergies are more common among younger children, and these are the same children who are most likely to put their hands in their mouth."
She also worries about undetected allergies, noting that "25 percent of children who have no known food allergies have their first reaction at school." Experts estimate that about 4 percent of children suffer from food allergies.
"If they want to serve breakfast to all children," Newhall said, "I would recommend they keep the food in the cafeteria."
In lunchrooms, kids with allergies often sit at designated tables.
In an interview, CPS parent Joy Mollet said she was appalled by the classroom breakfast program offered by her children's public preschool and does not want to see it at their grade school, Hawthorne Scholastic Academy.
"The waste is unbelievable because there is so little time and the food can be unappetizing," said Mollet, who has three children at Hawthorne. "On top of that my children were eating breakfast at home and then had to sit down again to another one."
Hawthorne PTA president Laura Durudogan sent a letter Tuesday to school board president Mary Richardson-Lowry making a case for allowing the school to opt out of the program. With a low-income rate of just 16.4 percent (compared with 86 percent for the district), Durudogan said the small school is able to meet hunger needs with a free breakfast program offered before class starts.
Northwestern University education professor and Nettelhorst parent Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach also thinks schools should be able to opt out. But "with one of the shortest instructional days in the nation, I don't want to see any school - especially those who might need class time the most - lose more." She advocates finding a way to make up for lost time across the board.
Many critics also wonder if a teacher can really get a classroom of children to grab and eat breakfast, then clean up effectively, within 15 minutes.
At McAuliffe Elementary, which started the program in 2007, principal David Pino said it is possible, though students don't always finish their food. He also said teachers can use the time to take attendance or even read to students while they eat.
Most of his teachers opposed the program initially, Pino said, but today it has become "part of the culture. One teacher even saw how hungry the kids were and she said 'shame on us for resisting.'"
Pino acknowledges that his school has only one child with an allergy issue and serves a student body that is 98 percent low income. "But even in the more affluent schools, parents are in a hurry to get to work and there isn't always time to make breakfast," he said.
Kim Lutz, who has a son with food allergies at Bell, said she feels cautiously optimistic about working with CPS on a joint solution.
"But if my son ever got hurt, my conciliatory nature would be gone," she said. "We would sue CPS and it would cost them a lot of money."
CLASSROOM BREAKFASTS CAN BE A CASH COW
The Breakfast in the Classroom program may have some drawbacks for parents and school staffers, but the program has a great reputation among district administrators as a way not only to feed breakfast to more children (which has been linked to better test scores) but to bring in extra cash.
It's well known in the school food community that the money paid for each breakfast by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (aided sometimes by additional state incentives) can exceed what it costs to procure and serve the meals, especially if a district qualifies as "severe need," with more than 40 percent of the children qualifying for free or reduced-price meals.
School meal experts have estimated that Breakfast in the Classroom meals can often cost about $1 total to produce, but USDA pays $1.76 for every classroom breakfast served in a severe-need district to students who qualify for free meals and $1.46 per breakfast given to students who qualify for reduced-price meals.
At schools like Hawthorne Scholastic Academy, where more than 80 percent of the students do not qualify for free or reduced-price meals, USDA would reimburse Chicago Public Schools only 26 cents per classroom breakfast served to those children.
In her January presentation to the school board on Breakfast in the Classroom, CPS food service chief Louise Esaian touted the blanket mandate as a way for the district, which routinely runs multimillion-dollar deficits on food service, to gain extra revenue.
USDA breakfast payments to the district exceed breakfast costs by about a third, Esaian's presentation showed. She estimated that, at 65 percent participation, CPS would receive $59.6 million a year for a program that would cost $40.9 million to produce.
Esaian said later that the extra $18.7 million would go to pay "existing expenses."