An East Hampton Restaurant Experiments With Free Breakfast for School Kids

Barbara Layton, the owner of Babette’s restaurant, will be on hand to serve free breakfasts to East Hampton’s middle schoolers beginning Jan. 8. The initiative is the brainchild of Jake Ruehl, a Springs resident who did the fund-raising before enlisting Ms. Layton’s help. Durell Godfrey

Mention the Black Panther movement of the 1960s to those old enough to remember, and most likely it conjures beret-wearing revolutionaries with raised fists who packed guns. What often gets lost in the story is a program they instituted in 1968 to provide free breakfasts to schoolchildren in Oakland, Calif. The program became so popular that by the end of 1969, the Panthers had set up kitchens in cities across the nation and were feeding more than 10,000 children every day before school.

Jake Ruehl, a Springs resident who is 20 and a sophomore at St. Lawrence University, learned about the Panthers’ legacy of social justice and community building during an exhibit last year at the Queens Museum. He decided to start his own initiative, called Free Breakfasts for Kids, at the Deep Root Learning Center in Canton, N.Y., not far from his college campus. Following the success of Free Breakfasts for Kids, which is now expanding to a church in the Canton area, Jake decided to bring it to East Hampton. 

Free Breakfasts for Kids will begin on Jan. 8 for students at the East Hampton Middle School. The program will kick off with free breakfasts every Monday at Babette’s restaurant, a few doors down from the school on Newtown Lane. For approximately an hour before the school bell sounds at 7:45 a.m., any student with a valid East Hampton Middle School identification card will be welcomed in.

“I am happy to be serving the community,” said Barbara Layton, the owner of Babette’s, who was approached by Mr. Ruehl. “I’m delighted to offer these kids clean, nourishing, and organic food — it makes all the difference.” 

Ms. Layton said that the menu will change each week, varying between whole-grain waffles, French toast, and free-range eggs. Produce donations from Open Minded Organics and Quail Hill Farm will also be featured. There will definitely be no Cheerios or Pop Tarts, she emphasized with a smile.

“The idea is lovely,” said Charles Soriano, the principal at the middle school. “Anything that helps kids is good.” Some logistics still need to be worked out, he pointed out, such as how children who take the school bus in the mornings — and are not permitted to go anywhere but straight into the school building — might attend. However, if a parent or guardian drives a student to school, that would not be a problem.

“We’ll deal with issues as they come up,” said Ms. Layton, who was a Montessori teacher before opening Babette’s 23 years ago. She had in mind another potential challenge: What if 100 children show up, when the restaurant can best accommodate 55 to 60 people? “I haven’t even discussed money yet with Jake. I’m just happy to do this,” she said, unfazed.

Ms. Layton believes that community building should be a priority during these divisive times, and hopes that through initiatives such as this, East Hampton might be a beacon for change. She will be there, she promised, watching the children during the breakfast hour. “I’m going to see who’s always sitting together, who’s being excluded, and I’ll try to be a facilitator for building bonds between kids.” 

According to No Kid Hungry, a nationwide organization dedicated to ending childhood hunger, 20 million children in the United States receive free or reduced lunches, but only half that number receive free breakfasts — and, in many cases, the lack of a nutritious breakfast is because of budget cuts. Consequently, many schools rely on philanthropic programs such as Free Breakfasts for Kids to give children who might otherwise go hungry a healthy meal to start their day. 

The National Institutes of Health has summarized 36 different research articles and studies, and draws the broad conclusion that a habitual breakfast, especially a nutritious and varied one, has positive effects on students’ behavior and academic performance. School officials report that when kids eat breakfast, they see better attendance, less tardiness, fewer behavioral problems, increased graduation rates, and a decrease in the number of students who must repeat grades.  

For all those reasons, the Springs School instituted Blessings in a Backpack in September, which sends a backpack home with qualifying students, filled with food for the weekend.

“What really appealed to me about the free breakfasts program,” said Jake, “is that there’s no stigma attached. You show up with your school ID and you get to sit down and enjoy breakfast.”

While Jake, whose mother is the actress Mercedes Ruehl, will return to college in January, he said he has made arrangements with a few key people to ensure the program runs smoothly. According to the school social workers and administrators he spoke with, about 50 to 60 students from the middle school could show up for a free breakfast. 

His goal is that the program would expand from one day a week to five, and he is also in the process of enlisting other restaurants, including Lulu Kitchen and Bar in Sag Harbor. His motivation to start the program on the South Fork was summed up on his online Free Breakfasts for Kids page:

“In the towns and villages in the Hamptons, there is of course legendary wealth,” he wrote on the fund-raising site, where he has collected almost $5,000 for the East Hampton initiative. “But we must remember that there are also significant populations of struggling, hard-working families: some the sons and daughters of generations of fishermen and farmers, some drawn from afar with the prospects of jobs and a better life for their children, some the descendants of our indigenous peoples. The aim of the breakfast program is to give nourishment and support to these and all of our communities.”