Insights & News

Food for Thought: Breakfast from Cafeteria to Classroom

This article was originally published in the PBS Teachers Lounge. To view the original post, click here.

Finding Grants and Programs to Support a Breakfast Program

As an elementary school teacher for almost 18 years, I know firsthand the impact that eating breakfast has on my students—hungry kids simply do not perform as well academically. Unfortunately, kicking off the day on an empty stomach is more common than you may think, with 42.2 million Americans living in food insecure households, including 13.1 million children, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. I currently teach students with special needs at a Title 1 school in Guilford County, North Carolina—the state’s third largest school district with 65.1 percent of the enrolled students living below the poverty line.

Four years ago, my school’s district received a grant from Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom enabling us to serve breakfast as part of the school day. The program takes the traditional cafeteria breakfast approach and improves it by moving it into the classroom. While most U.S. schools participate in the cafeteria program, barriers, including school bus schedules, late arrivals to school, pressure to go directly to class, and reluctance to be labeled “low-income,” have reduced rates for school breakfast participation.

By moving breakfast from the cafeteria into the classroom, every child, no matter the family’s income level, is able to receive a healthy start to their day. While some teachers and school leaders expressed skepticism about the change, I had hope. Not only do students receive the most important meal of the day, but it also creates a sense of community and comradery in the classroom, which is very special. Not to mention, it has a positive impact on both academics and behavior. Skepticism quickly changed to confidence as a routine was established and maintained, allowing the students to reap all of the benefits.

For example, one of my third grade students had a very low reading level for his age. He was always late to school and, as a result, he arrived a very hungry and inattentive student. He wouldn’t have his first meal until lunch time! When Reedy Fork Elementary began serving breakfast in the classroom, we noticed a substantial change in his behavior and academics; his tardiness improved and his reading level increased significantly.

Prior to having the program at my school, an estimated 30-40 percent of our students were taking advantage of school breakfast in the cafeteria. Today, 80-85 percent of our students are eating a nutritious meal thanks to Partners for the Breakfast in the Classroom. With a full stomach, a child’s mind shifts from thinking about food to a clear and confident focus on  conquering a day of learning.

Teachers and other administrators can play an important role in helping children reap the benefits of school breakfast. If you are looking to expand your breakfast services to the classroom, here are four ways to take action:

• Explore resources and grant opportunities. Create or maintain relationships with national education and nutrition organizations like the NEA Foundation, the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), National Association of Elementary School Principals Foundation (NAESP) and the School Nutrition Foundation(SNF). They can help identify specific grant opportunities that may be available to your school district.

• Talk with your school nutrition director or cafeteria manager. If breakfast isn’t served in your school, or is only served in the cafeteria, speak with your cafeteria staff and school administrators about the feasibility and capability of expanding the school breakfast program. Initiate the conversation and emphasize the positive change it could have on the students.

• Educate principals, superintendents and other school administrators. Discuss the health, educational and behavioral benefits of breakfast in the classroom with your school’s leaders. Consider working with colleagues to host educational webinars and meetings highlighting research, success stories and best practices.

• Engage with an existing parent group or PTA. Ensure that families grasp the benefits of an effective school breakfast program for all students. A body of informed families as stakeholders can help garner the level of community support needed to keep school breakfast initiatives moving forward. Send a letter home to the parents, put it in a parent e-newsletter or have them take a survey to research what they think!

When teachers, superintendents and principals put their full support behind breakfast in the classroom and healthy eating, participation reaches its fullest potential. Every child can gain the true benefits of having a nutritious meal to kick off their school day. By embracing school breakfast programs, students can significantly increase both the overall health and academic performance that they need to succeed.

Amy Harrison teaches at Reedy Fork Elementary in Greensboro, NC.