What’s for Breakfast?

04/11/2014  |  By Eric Fors

When that first school bell rings to kick off the day, are students ready to tackle a full day of learning? For many children, the grumbling in their stomachs may be louder than that shrieking bell or the teacher talking at the front of the room. A recent comprehensive study, “Hunger in our Schools: Share Our Strength’s Teacher Report,” found that three out of five teachers say they have children who regularly come to school hungry. Nearly 90 percent of principals surveyed say they see children arriving hungry at least once a week.

In a time when school success is measured by its students’ performance, these statistics are alarming. That’s because starting the day hungry can have serious consequences on student achievement and behavior. An empty stomach directly impacts a child’s energy level and ability to concentrate. A majority of teachers questioned in the study say that hungry students show poor academic performance and often have discipline problems. Ninety percent of educators in the study say starting the day with breakfast is critical to academic achievement. The findings of “The Wellness Impact” report from the GENYOUth Foundation support these findings, showing a direct link between a quality breakfast and student wellness and performance.

So what can be done about this problem? Children and their families should know about the free and reduced price breakfast programs. In the past that presented challenges because some students arrive so late that they’re actually unable to eat their breakfast in the cafeteria, or they might even feel stigmatized — eating while others socialize. Many school systems are tackling these obstacles and seeing success by allowing breakfast after the bell. With “Grab N’ Go” meals, “Breakfast in the Classroom” is integrated into the students’ daily routine. In North Carolina, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) began offering free breakfast to all students this year and have seen a steady increase in participation.

“Universal breakfast takes the stigma away that free breakfast is only for the economically disadvantaged,” said Amy Harkey, Director of Child Nutrition Operations for CMS. “Breakfast is for all and it jump starts everyone to begin their day of learning.”

Eating breakfast at school has increased by nearly 30 percent year after year, and school officials expect that number to grow as more students and their families become aware of the program.

Brewer High School in Morgan County, Ala. is also enjoying success with its breakfast program by making it “cool” to be in the cafeteria. The lunchroom was remodeled to reflect a café style with booths, bistro type tables and stools, and even some flat screen TVs. A “Grab N’ Go” breakfast vending machine was also added, thanks in part to a grant from the Southeast United Dairy Industry Association (SUDIA). Students use their meal account number, just like for hot breakfasts or lunches, but can get nutritious cold options like fruit, multi-grain bars, milk or yogurt. The vending machine has helped increase overall breakfast participation by over 50 percent. Additionally, the number of students opting for the vending machine has more than tripled since it was introduced in August.

Grabbing healthy, easy-to-eat breakfast items and a carton of nutritious milk provides students an important building block for the day, and takes virtually no time out of a teacher’s lesson plan. An average meal can be consumed in 15 minutes or less and during that time, teachers can take attendance, make announcements and collect homework assignments. After that, students are fueled up and ready to take on the day, and keep the stomach growling at bay, at least until lunchtime!

In Kentucky, the Jefferson County Public School (JCPS) system, which includes the Louisville area, is seeing dramatic participation results. Nearly two-thirds of JCPS students qualified for free or reduced meals, but just a couple years ago, only a fraction were participating in breakfast. Nineteen schools received a “Breakfast in the Classroom” (BIC) grant because of their high numbers of students eligible for free and reduced meals.

“Jefferson County’s BIC program enables all students in the school to eat free of charge, which helps level the playing field,” said Kathy Belcher, Senior Manager of School Health and Wellness with SUDIA. Early into the BIC program, educators noticed reduced tardiness, improved attendance and fewer discipline problems. “Breakfast is brain food! Starting the day with a healthy breakfast can boost attention spans, increase concentration and memory, all essential for learning,” said Belcher.

Since the BIC program started in JCPS in 2012, at least 10 more schools have signed up and the student participation rate for the initial 19 schools now averages around 90 percent.

Many other schools that have implemented the BIC strategy are already reaping the benefits. According to the “Share Our Strength” report, more than three out of four teachers say there is noticeable improvement in student alertness during their morning lessons. More than half of the teachers say that attendance has improved since the program started. Fifty-five percent of teachers surveyed say they have noticed a decrease in the number of student visits to the school nurse for headaches or upset stomachs, and there is really no substitute for having students at their desks. The majority of teachers also said there have been a noticeable decrease in the discipline problems in their classrooms, and students’ focus can translate to higher performance. A teacher at Mooreland Elementary in Knox County, Tenn. said since implementing “Breakfast in the Classroom” two years ago, “The school has an overall calm about it that it never had before.” Twenty-two schools in that district now participate in the BIC program.

The changes won’t happen overnight, but so far the results and participation growth are encouraging. As more school systems get involved and the word about breakfast gets around to more students and parents, we can all look forward to a lot less grumbling when the bell rings.

To learn more about school breakfast programs or to find out how your school can get involved, go to the Southeast United Dairy Industry Association’s website at http://www.southeastdairy.org.
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