Breakfast: The Right Way to Start the School Day

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Parents and teachers know how hunger affects children in and out of the classroom. Starting the school day ready to learn—by eating a healthy school breakfast—is the first step toward academic success.

Children who eat school breakfast show improved attendance, behavior and standardized achievement test scores, as well as decreased tardiness and fewer visits to the school nurse.

Research shows there is a clear link between breakfast and learning, but the Food Research & Action Center’s new school breakfast report shines a light on the fact that too many children are missing out on the benefits of school breakfast. FRAC’s School Breakfast Scorecard found that nationally, on an average school day, only 56 low-income students participated in school breakfast for every 100 who ate school lunch in the 2015-2016 school year.

The good news is there are proven strategies to increase school breakfast participation. More schools are adopting breakfast after the bell models, where breakfast is served in the classroom, from grab-and-go carts in the hallway on the way to class or during a morning break after homeroom or first period. Schools that have adopted these models are seeing participation grow as a result. The most successful school districts also offer free breakfast to all students in schools with high percentages of children eligible for free and reduced-price school meals.

The Healthy School Meals Grant, funded in part by the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project, a collaboration between The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and administered by National PTA, was awarded to 25 local PTAs to be used in the improvement of school meals environments, perceptions of school meals, menu items and ultimately participation in the National School Breakfast and National School Lunch programs.

One Health School Meals Grant recipient, Oakwood Primary Center PTA, wanted to improve their breakfast participation with a pilot grab-and-go model.

Samantha Cimadevilla, chair for the Health and Wellness committee of South Huntington Union Free School District PTA, reported that in January, the Oakwood Primary Center (a K-2 school in Long Island, N.Y.), launched a Grab-and-Go Breakfast program with the help of a Healthy School Meals Grant awarded in June 2016.

“I was very excited to work alongside the Oakwood Principal and the South Huntington School District School Lunch Manager to help secure the grant and work towards the goal of increasing breakfast program participation by 20% while mitigating the loss of instructional class time the children experience when eating breakfast in the cafeteria,” said Cimadevilla.

Can a Grab and Go breakfast truly increase participation? Would the location of where the children eat breakfast really have an impact? During our eight-week pilot, this grant was going to help us find out.

Sheila Buhse, SHUFSD School Lunch Manager, was excited to have the opportunity to implement this grant.

“We are in the third week of an eight-week pilot and the numbers of students participating in the breakfast program are significantly higher than this time last year,” said Buhse. “We are in fact serving 60-80 more children per day as compared to last year this time. And, the figures are dramatic and continue to grow!”

“However, the teachers’ input thus far has been mixed,” Buhse added. “There have been those who feel it is a worthwhile program and others who are concerned with food spillage and distraction of students eating the breakfast in class.”

The Health & Wellness at Committee Oakwood Primary School is working with administration to address these challenges. As the pilot goes on, we hope to identify what is working well while we try to address what isn’t. In schools where a Grab-and-Go program already exists, many teachers have reported that while these young students at times may need assistance in opening containers of milk and/or juice, they are able to use the breakfast program as a learning opportunity.

So how can parents and teachers ensure that students have the chance to start the day with a healthy breakfast?

  • Be a role model! Your attitude towards breakfast will influence your child’s breakfast habits. Try eating breakfast with your children at home or even at school.
  • Ask your school nutrition director for your school’s breakfast participation rates and provide this information to principals, as they often are unaware of how many students participate in school breakfast.
  • Inform other parents and teachers about the School Breakfast Program to make sure they know about the academic benefits of participation, barriers to participation and ways that teachers and parents can help encourage students to participate.
  • Talk to your school nutrition director, principals and school board about offering breakfast in the classroom to increase participation.

You also can sign up for FRAC’s monthly newsletter, Meals Matter: School Breakfast, to get further information and resources on school breakfast. Also check out the National PTA’s website for more information on Healthy School Meals for tips to improve both breakfast and lunch at your school. Together, we can ensure every student starts their day ready to learn.

Chelsea Smyth is the Healthy School Meals Fellow at National PTA, assisting with the implementation of the Healthy School Meals Grant. She is also a registered dietitian and is currently working towards a Master’s of Public Health from George Mason University.

 L. Samantha Cimadevilla was a Market Research Analyst and Project Manager for 12 years. At present she is a homemaker, mother of two and an advocate for health and wellness. She sits on the Executive PTA Board at Maplewood Intermediate Center as Recording Secretary and Chairperson of the SHUFSD PTA Health & Wellness Committee.

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