By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — About 200 kids got a hot breakfast yesterday at Golden Hill Elementary School, and state Rep. Brian Dempsey picked up the tab.
Not literally, but kind of.
Dempsey, chairman of the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee, was at the school to receive Project Bread’s “Hunger Hero” award for his effort to get $275,000 into this year’s state budget for a program that pays for free breakfasts for thousands of elementary school students in poor areas across the state.
In past years, students received free and reduced cost breakfast based on parental income. Thanks to the cash infusion for the “universal breakfast” program, all students at qualifying schools are now eligible for free breakfast, regardless of parental income.
“The idea is to get rid of the stigma that breakfast is a poor kids program,” said Sarah Cluggish, Project Bread’s program director.
Thousands of students at schools across the state are receiving the free breakfasts thanks to the universal breakfast program, Cluggish said.
At Golden Hill alone, the number of kids who eat breakfast daily has increased from about 60 last year to almost 200 this year, she said, noting the meals are served prior to the start of the regular school day.
“So many families that have been left behind by the economic recovery are benefiting from this opportunity for a nutritious meal to grow, thrive and do well in school, and not feel stigmatized,” Cluggish said.
Cluggish said children receive hot breakfast Tuesday and Thursday and cold breakfast the rest of the week. Tilton and Pentucket Lake elementary schools are the other schools in Haverhill in the universal breakfast program.
Yesterday’s menu consisted of a choice of items such as pancakes, French toast sticks or egg sandwiches. Cold breakfast includes food such as bagels and fruit.
School Superintendent James Scully introduced Dempsey as students were finishing eating in the school cafeteria.
“You have people here this morning who care very much about you and want to make sure you have a good breakfast,” Dempsey told the students.
“This really gets to the heart of helping people and is personally very fulfilling,” Dempsey said in brief interview after accepting his award.
Project Bread is a statewide anti-hunger organization that advocates and raises money for the purpose of providing “people of all ages, cultures and walks of life with sustainable, reliable access to nutritious food,” according to a press release on yesterday’s event. The group’s main fundraiser is the annual “Walk for Hunger,” the oldest continual pledge walk in the country.