In an effort to increase participation in school breakfast programs and nurture academic success, a new initiative is moving meals from the cafeteria to an educational environment students know best: the classroom.
Four organizations collectively known as Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom recently launched a $3 million initiative funded by Walmart Foundation of Bentonville, Ark., that deviates from traditional school breakfast programs that often require students to arrive to school early, before the first class of the day begins.
The program’s Jan. 13 debut coincided with the release of a report, “School Breakfast in America’s Big Cities,” by the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington-based health-advocacy group that also partners in the new program. The study of breakfast programs in 23 cities found that schools with classroom-based programs and those that provide breakfasts free to all students have the highest participation rates.
“This is an opportunity to begin a movement for change so that all kids reap the benefit of a morning meal,” said Barbara Chester, President of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of Elementary School Principals, one of the groups involved in the Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom program. The other two partnering organizations are the Washington-based National Education Association’s Health Information Network and the School Nutrition Foundation in Oxon Hill, Md.
By providing free breakfasts in students’ classrooms, the Partners program is hoping to reach students—including those eligible to participate in the federally subsidized breakfast program—who might otherwise skip the early-morning breakfast in the cafeteria in order to make it to class on time, Ms. Chester said. She cites missed buses and other factors associated with the morning rush.
Research indicates that eating a healthy breakfast increases alertness and can help academic performance. It can also help reduce obesity so that students aren’t overeating as a result of skipping a meal earlier in the day, according to school-breakfast proponents.
The initiative targeted districts with a “strong food-service program” and an interest in participating, Ms. Chester said.
The five school districts that will receive funds are: Dallas Independent School District; Little Rock School District, in Arkansas; Memphis School District, in Tennessee; Florida’s Orange County Public Schools; and Prince George’s County Public Schools, in Maryland. The grants enable districts to expand their breakfast programs by offering “grab-and-go” meals to all students, regardless of their families’ income levels.
Those districts join a growing number of districts nationwide that are moving breakfast from the cafeteria to the classroom. Though not part of the Partners for Breakfast program, school officials in Peoria, Ariz., launched a breakfast-in-the-classroom program last spring in one elementary school and expanded it this year to two more schools, according to Willie Gentry, director of food and nutrition services for that district. Participating schools provide subsidized breakfasts to students who qualify for the federal free- and reduced-price meals program and other classmates are encouraged to bring a bag breakfast. At one such school, Ira Murphy Elementary, breakfast-program participation increased by 58 percent in one week, Ms. Gentry said.
She also credits the program for reducing tardiness and improving attendance. Because the breakfast break takes place during morning announcements and attendance-taking, students aren’t as rushed as they are at recess or lunch, she said.
About 38 percent of the district’s students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch, although, at some schools that percentage rises to 60 percent, according to Ms. Gentry.
But the program hasn’t been without some criticism. Some citizens mistakenly worried that the district was subsidizing the federal program, Ms. Gentry said, while others argued that parents should be responsible for making sure their children eat breakfast.
“These are children that we have in our school. They are entitled to a free education, and we have to make sure that they’re ready,” Ms. Gentry said.
A version of this article appeared in the January 26, 2011 edition of Education Week as School Breakfasts Move From Cafeteria to Class