Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but too many hungry kids in the U.S. miss a morning meal because of when and how it’s served.
Teachers are tasked with ensuring their students’ wellbeing. That includes everything from their education and mental health, to their social and emotional welfare. What’s sometimes overlooked is the opportunity to help make sure they are getting the proper food they need — which in turn helps everything else.
While teaching, we each discovered the importance of making sure kids started the day with breakfast. The Tampa schools in which Megan taught provided 100 percent of students a nutritious free breakfast, so every child had an opportunity to start class well fed.
But there was one major caveat: they could only get breakfast if they arrived in the cafeteria before the first bell.
As a teacher who worked breakfast duty in the cafeteria several mornings a week, Megan walked a difficult line as she was forced to make tough decisions. How do you turn away a kindergartner whose mom was running late and is hungry? How do you say “no” to a third grader who needs to eat breakfast, yet skips it most mornings because they want to get to class to get a jump on their work? (Answer: You don’t. You find ways around policies and rules to do what’s best for kids).
There were too many times when the free breakfast program didn’t fully serve the students who needed it most. It was well-intentioned, but missed the mark at really closing the opportunity gap. There had to be a more effective way to offer a nutritious breakfast to all kids, so they weren’t punished if they didn’t make it to school on time, and they weren’t missing out because they were so dedicated to their learning. There is a better way.
Teachers are well aware that childhood hunger exists and the very real consequences it has on our students’ ability to succeed. We see the impact in classrooms across the country. These classrooms span rural, urban, and suburban settings with students of all demographics, not just those classrooms with students reported as free and reduced eligible.
That’s why No Kid Hungry and the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY), have teamed up to make sure teachers know about the best ways to help make sure every kid starts the school day with the food they need to thrive.
In our opinion, it is a no brainer. Lunch is part of the school day and no one blinks an eye. Why shouldn’t breakfast be the same? We now realize the importance and we hope you will too.
Here are some things we wish we had known about school breakfast:
What is the National School Breakfast Program?
The National Breakfast Program is a federally food school nutrition program, just like school lunch. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers the School Breakfast Program at the federal level, state education agencies administer the program at the state level, and local school food authorities operate the program in schools.
Children may be determined eligible for free or reduced-price meals through participation in certain Federal Assistance Programs based on their household income and family size, or by meeting other federal requirements. [USDA, 2017]
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but too many hungry kids in the U.S. miss a morning meal because of when and how it’s served. Traditionally, breakfast is often served in the cafeteria before school. But schools that use alternative breakfast models like Grab and Go, Breakfast In the Classroom, and Second Chance Breakfast, which offer breakfast after the bell at the start of each day are able to provide more kids with the healthy food they need to learn.
Why Should Students Eat School Meals?
Research shows that the simple act of eating school breakfast can dramatically change a child’s life. Making school breakfast a seamless part of the school day by serving it after the bell can also have a huge impact on classrooms. From increasing test scores, to calmer classrooms and better attendance and graduation rates, school meals have proven to have a huge effect on students’ abilities to learn. The health benefits are also clear, with fewer nurse visits, better health, and lower rates of obesity among children who have access to school breakfast. [Deloitte & No Kid Hungry, 2015]
It’s also an equity issue. Ensuring that all kids get to start the day with the nutrition and fuel they need to focus and learn is a right that should be granted to all students. Access to food is as key a need as safety and security. How can a child who is worried about when they will next get to eat attend to learning about math or reading? Or about how they are managing emotions and maintain relationships with their teachers and peers? At NNSTOY, we’re really focused on making sure all our students have access to same basic resources.
What Do Alternative Breakfast Models Look Like?
There are many ways to create a successful school breakfast program, but three innovative models that have been proven to be successful are Breakfast In the Classroom, Grab and Go and Second Chance.
For Breakfast in the Classroom, students eat breakfast in their classroom after the official start of the school day. Students or staff may deliver breakfasts to classrooms from the cafeteria via coolers or insulated rolling bags, or school nutrition staff can serve breakfast from mobile carts in the hallways. Breakfast in the Classroom takes 15 minutes on average.
For Grab and Go, students pick up conveniently packaged breakfasts from mobile service carts in high traffic areas, such as hallways, entryways or cafeterias. Students can eat in the classroom or elsewhere on school grounds before and after the bell has rung. Grab and Go is most effective when carts are stationed in locations convenient to students — e.g. near school entrances — and when students are able to eat the food they pick up from the carts in the classroom.
For Second Chance Breakfast, students eat breakfast during a break in the morning, often after first period or midway between breakfast and lunch. Schools can serve breakfast in the same manner as they would with traditional Grab and Go breakfast. This model can be particularly effective for older students who may not be hungry first thing in the morning or may opt to hang out with friends.
Are These Meals Healthy?
Schools participating in the National School Breakfast Program (NBSP) must adhere to nutrition guidelines supported by science and provided by USDA. Even though food items provided to students at school sometimes look the same as breakfast foods found in grocery stores, convenience stores or fast food restaurants, their nutritional profile is very different.
For example, breakfast grains at school are whole grain rich, low in sugar and packed with vitamins and minerals; juices are 100 percent fruit/vegetables, and fruits and vegetables are fresh or frozen. If canned fruit is served, it is packed in light — not heavy — syrup, water or fruit juice; calorie levels have an age appropriate minimum and maximum; saturated fat is less than 10 percent of total calories; and breakfast is low in sodium.
School nutrition programs are self-supporting, meaning they are not part of the school system’s budget; and reimbursement from USDA is given to schools only when guidelines are followed. The reimbursement covers the cost of food, preparation and serving of foods and beverages, and food service employee wages. [Food & Nutrition Service, USDA, 2017]
Why Aren’t More Students Participating?
Traditional school breakfast programs often operate too early for students to participate, particularly if bus or carpool schedules do not allow them to get there on time. Other students end up skipping breakfast because they do not want to be singled out as poor or lose out on time socializing with their friends. Breakfast after the bell models can be an easy way to overcome these barriers.
How Can I Help Students Access School Breakfast?
There are many ways you can help. We want you to be as involved as possible in the planning, roll out, and implementation of Breakfast After the Bell to make sure it works best for your students, your classroom, and your school. Here are a few ways to get started:
- Talk to cafeteria and nutrition staff: Ask them how your school is serving breakfast, and if there are alternative models your schools could try. Talk to them about meal quality to find out more about the school nutrition guidelines.
- Raise concerns with your school principal: Talk to your principal about the importance of school breakfast, any barriers you see to students accessing the meal, and talk through ways to troubleshoot.
- Volunteer to start a pilot in your classroom: With the support of your cafeteria, custodial, and other education administrators, ask to start a Breakfast After the Bell pilot in your classroom. A small pilot can help work out kinks and show the success of alternative models in real time.
- Encourage kids to eat breakfast: Sometimes something as simple as asking a student if they ate breakfast is enough to get them to start. Encourage your kids to begin the morning with a nutritious meal to kick-start their day.
- Share observations: Talk about impact of Breakfast After the Bell with others in your school to create change. Talk to others in your district, in your teacher networks, to share best practices and see what they’re saying.
- Encourage parents: As with students, sometimes something as simple as encouraging parents to return their meal participation paperwork and make sure they’re aware of the nutritional values of school meals can make all the difference in meal participation.
- Reach out to No Kid Hungry: Team No Kid Hungry works with school administrators and staff to help them identify and customize the model that works best for their school. We help bring together school stakeholders, including teachers, food and building services staff, and parents, to design the ideal program and make sure that schools have the funding, equipment and marketing resources they need in order to make these alternative breakfast models work.
- Connect with fellow advocates and allies: Organizations like the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) are focused on supporting teachers who speak up for their students through resources and networks to build collective voice. Connect with other educators who are concerned about childhood hunger and equity through social media or networks, then problem-solve together. Find advocacy resources and partners in groups such as NNSTOY’s Teachers Leading Coffee House (join us there on Facebook!). There is so much power and momentum in group problem-solving and collective voice.
Together, we can end childhood hunger in our classrooms, in our schools and in our states.