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At 9 a.m. the fleet of carts launches out of the cafeteria, wheels humming through the halls of Healdsburg Elementary School. Doors quietly open for the delivery. Sometimes it's a silent drop-off, sometimes the cart is greeted with an enthusiastic chorus of "Thank you!"

It's that time in the morning when empty stomachs start growling. But thanks to "The Morning Grumble," no more kids are showing up in the school office mid-morning complaining of tummy aches.

Since school started this year, a team of 45 community volunteers has shared the duty, arriving on campus by 8 a.m. to start assembling a healthy breakfast for all 394 kids who attend the K-2 campus, including the Healdsburg Charter School.

No one has to qualify for the free meal, which includes such items as fresh fruit, granola bars, yogurt, cheese sticks, carrots, boiled eggs, milk and muffins from Costeaux Bakery once a week.

The brains behind The Morning Grumble are retired Bay Area TV personality Ross McGowan, whose old "People Are Talking" sidekick and fellow Healdsburg resident Ann Fraser works beside him in the kitchen a few days a week.

"When you retire, you don't know what you're going to do. People can say, &‘Oh I'm going to take cooking classes or go back to school.' Which are all nice things to think about," he said. "But that is all &‘me' kind of stuff. I asked myself, &‘What am I going to do to give back without, frankly, having to join clubs or organizations?'"

The answer came to him while reading "Dear Abby" in the bakery one day. The columnist was advising a reader who was similarly perplexed about finding the right path. McGowan remembered reading about how so many kids go to school hungry and often teachers spend their own money to feed them.

What he learned from Healdsburg Elementary School Principal Stephanie Feith is that the school did already offer a free or reduced-price breakfast to low-income students. But fewer than 60 kids were taking advantage of it, even though more than 2/3 of the student body qualifies.

"Sometimes students would come to school and they didn't want to eat. They wanted to play," said Feith. "Sometimes children aren't hungry for a meal that early." Many kids just weren't dropped off in time to eat before the bell rang.

"We used to have a steady stream of children each day come to the office mid-morning with tummy aches," said Feith. "But once we started serving The Grumble, we see a few ... but it's because they're actually sick and not hungry."

First-grade teacher Judy Sanderson said she has one little student who comes to her door every morning at 7:45 a.m.

"She just looks at me," she said. "I say, &‘Are you hungry?' She nods her head and we go to the fridge."

Sanderson stockpiles Grumble leftovers for such emergencies and often sends hungry kids homes with them.

The State Department of Education supports the idea of a universal breakfast in the classroom. A memo sent to school districts two years ago lamented that the current school breakfast program feeds less than 30 percent of qualifying kids. Yet research shows that students who eat a good breakfast do better academically and have lower rates of absenteeism and tardiness.

There are residual benefits, too, like being introduced to new foods and practicing table manners.

Sanderson said she serves just before recess, with children dining on a placemat they made themselves while listening to a Santa Rosa Symphony CD.

By having every eligible student participate, the school gets enough government funds to cover "The Morning Grumble" for all. Last September, Food Services Chief Sally Nobles said, the school served 1,641 breakfasts. This year, it served 7,359, with no impact on the budget thanks in part to volunteers, the businesspeople, artists, nurses and other professionals who cut fruit, bag the breakfasts and deliver, with minimal interruption to instruction. Teachers can serve it when and how they choose.

Ann Fraser, who still has the same close rapport with McGowan as they had on TV all those years ago, delights in being called "The Grumble Lady." One of her best moments was the day one little boy came up and asked her for a hug. Soon the whole class lined up behind him for a cuddle.

"I got hugged by the entire class," she said with a chuckle. "It made my day."

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.