Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. In the case of school-aged children, research backs up this maxim. On average, students who eat school breakfast have been shown to score 17.5 percent higher on standardized math tests and attend 1.5 more days of school per year. Research also shows that students who attend class more regularly are 20 percent more likely to graduate high school.

Despite the widespread use of the USDA’s school breakfast program (which started in 1975) in most school districts, large numbers of eligible children still are not eating that crucial morning meal.

With one in six children in the U.S. lacking consistent access to enough food, school districts confront daily the fact that poor nutrition impacts attendance, attention, memory, mood, and illness.

With improved attendance and higher achievement at stake, universal breakfast programs — sometimes called breakfast after the bell, breakfast in the classroom, grab and go to the classroom, and second chance breakfast — seek to remove barriers to participation in school-based breakfast programs.

The philosophy behind these programs is to provide breakfast for all students, eligible or not, at the start of the school day. Serving breakfast in the classroom takes the stigma away from participating. It makes sure that all students, regardless of home or family situation, are fed and ready to learn.

Some states have passed legislation requiring universal breakfast programs — Colorado, Illinois, and Nevada among them.

“There’s this idea that if we raise standards, schools will meet those standards. But if we’re not meeting a basic need like hunger, good luck,” says Trevor Muir, author of The Epic Classroom: How to Boost Engagement, Make Learning Memorable, and Transform Lives. “It doesn’t matter how engaging your curriculum is, how great your pedagogy or classroom management is. If students are hungry, it’s almost impossible to engage them fully.”

Muir, a college professor and education consultant, used to teach ninth-grade English and history in Grand Rapids, Michigan, at a school in which 60 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price meals. A lot of those students were getting their primary meals in school, and some didn’t eat on weekends unless the school sent them home with sack lunches.

After the school implemented a breakfast program in the classroom, students went from lethargic to energized and engaged. At the same time, the family-style meals encouraged the development of social and emotional skills and eliminated the perception that only poor kids eat breakfast at school.

“We saw a difference as soon as the program started,” Muir says. “It was also an opportunity for students to socialize before school, so they could focus on peer interaction and growing relationships, kindness and empathy, and all those things that matter.”  

Transitions, concerns, skeptics

As the second-largest school district in the country, the Los Angeles Unified School District, in which 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, found participation soared from 29 percent to about 70 percent after offering breakfast each morning after the bell.

That translates into more than 60 million breakfasts — consisting of fruit, grains, and protein — over one academic year.

This is incredibly important for a district that has more than 19,500 homeless students and more than 8,500 students on average living in foster care, says Ivy Marx, the district’s senior nutrition specialist.

Transitioning to a classroom breakfast model can be bumpy. Former principals were hired temporarily to help implement best practices, based on the size of the school and grade levels.

“You are going to have parents and teachers who have their concerns and are going to raise those concerns,” says Marx, “but if a school district as large as ours is able to implement this program, it’s only going to be easier for a smaller one.”

Anita Clark, a sixth-grade English teacher at North Corbin Junior High in Walker, Louisiana, was a skeptic. Would there be enough time? How much of a mess would the students make? Where would the extra trash go?

Three years into the school’s breakfast program, she has seen its benefits extend beyond filling bellies. For example, students fed breakfast at home often show compassion by giving fruit from their school breakfast to hungry students later in the day.

“I can honestly say there are absolutely no drawbacks at all to this program,” she says.

The school began its breakfast-in-the-classroom program under unusual circumstances — to give families one less thing to worry about after a catastrophic flood in 2016 left many of them displaced and homeless.

Breakfast consumption jumped from 35 percent to 85 percent when students were offered grab-and-go options at three kiosks located around the school. On top of that, attendance has increased, morning tardiness has decreased, and state achievement test scores now rank above pre-flood averages.

“Our school board members said they wanted us to pilot the program, and that if there was anything I needed they were going to give it to me, even if it wasn’t something they anticipated,” says Carolyn Vosburg, the school’s principal. “Maybe our implementation was smooth because we were in such obvious disaster mode.”

The bottom line is that it has worked — so well that the school has been approached by other schools around the country for advice.

That advice? Have good people and a good plan in place. For North Corbin Junior High, the plan, with help from the school board, is to seek grants for continuing the breakfast program, which is being funded by a grant ending in 2021.

“I have to figure out how to keep it going,” says Vosburg.

Different models

Clark isn’t alone in her initial skepticism. Both administrators and teachers who haven’t yet made the switch to classroom breakfasts frequently have reservations about the potential impact on academic time.

“Nutrition and education can seem like competing priorities,” says Lori Spruance, a current member and former chair of the Utah Breakfast Expansion Team, based in Salt Lake City. “But we have to look at the whole child. What are the things that are prohibiting children from learning? We need to do a better job with looking at that.”

The Utah Breakfast Expansion Team was formed in 2014 in response to the state’s consistently low participation in the federal school breakfast program.

From that time through the 2018-19 school year, participation statewide has increased by 7 percent. For the Granite School District in Central Salt Lake County, participation more than doubled, from 30 percent to 65 percent.

Through its work advocating for alternative breakfast models, the team found that different breakfast models work best for elementary and postsecondary schools. Breakfast in the classroom has been most successful at the elementary level, while at the middle and high school level, either grab and go or second chance breakfast are more popular.

With grab and go, students pick up meals — packed in bags for pick-up from the cafeteria or hallway kiosks — as they arrive at school and then eat on the way to class or at their desks during the first 10-15 minutes of class. With second chance, which is good for older students who tend to be less hungry early in the morning, students are offered bagged meals after first period during a nutrition break, to be eaten in the cafeteria or between classes.

Meanwhile, teachers are finding they can use meal time in the classroom to spotlight a student, read a book to the class, pass out papers, or review homework.

“It took less time from my academic work than I thought it would,” says Lynette Tervort, a kindergarten teacher at Mountain View Elementary School in Brigham City, Utah. “I do show-and-tell during breakfast, and if kids are done early, they just start their morning routine.”

Tervort adds: “It used to be that quite often in the morning I’d have kids say, ‘When’s lunch? When’s lunch? I’m hungry!’ and I’d have to find Cheerios in the cupboard or something else for them to eat. Now that’s very rare.”

Focus on ending hunger

Classroom breakfast advocates say feeding hungry students should be the focus of conversation more often, particularly with the upcoming Child Nutrition Reauthorization, which will impact child nutrition programs.

As for pushback about mess, schools can choose muffins and fruit over pancakes with syrup or cereal with milk.

Child Trends, a nonpartisan research center in Bethesda, Maryland, recently collaborated with Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom and found several unanticipated strategies for supporting social and emotional learning — most of which do not require extensive time or resources.

Students could be assigned responsibilities such as distribution and clean-up, and teachers can model care and empathy through informal conversations.

As for teachers who were dead-set against the program, “they now say they would never want it taken away,” says Brandon Stratford, deputy program area director in the education research area at Child Trends. “Within the first couple of months most had figured out the groove.”

Change can be challenging, and that’s why school board members “can grease the wheels a little bit and make people more comfortable about trying something new,” advises Stratford. “If they can get out into the community and show that this is important to them, there will be more buy-in to help get things started.”

Muir says setting up a better environment for success — in the classroom and beyond — starts “with awareness, with knowing what the result is of having hungry students. Then it’s about being very intentional about meeting that physiological need.”

Adds Vosburg, the Louisiana principal: “When you’re that kind of hungry, you’re not thinking of anything else.”

Robin L. Flanigan (robin@thekineticpen.com) is a freelance writer in Rochester, New York. Her mindfulness-themed ABC/poetry book was published in November.

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