School Breakfast Changes Lives

After a bit of a hiatus that included a broken ankle on the part of my husband, a broken femur on the part of my 91 year old mother, and a new grandchild, I am back.  And I’ve been thinking about school breakfast.  School Breakfast changes lives.  Studies show that students who eat school breakfast miss less school days throughout the school year, score 17% higher on math tests and are 20% more likely to graduate from high school.  And the benefits extend long into adulthood: high school graduates on average earn  $10,000 more than people who do not graduate from high school, and they are less likely to experience food insecurity.  Clearly, breakfast lives up to its reputation as the most important meal of the day.   And yet, while over 21 million students across the United States qualify for free and reduced price meals… less than half of these students are eating breakfast at school.  The data is the same in my own district, and we spend a lot of time wondering why families are not taking advantage of this benefit, and working on strategies to make breakfast more accessible.  

Several of our schools were recently awarded $1000.00 grants from Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry Campaign.  The purpose of the grants were to test a variety of innovative breakfast marketing strategies to help determine which are most effective in increasing breakfast participation.  We were excited to receive this boost to our existing breakfast program and were anxious to see if some of Share Our Strength’s strategy ideas would help us to further increase our participation.  As participants in the grant program, we were encouraged to offer breakfast free to all students in our elementary schools on a designated day, to study the impact that a universally free breakfast would have on participation levels.  

At this “free 4 all” breakfast event, we chose to have a simple “Super Bowl” Top Your Own Cereal Bar, inspired by a Kellogg’s  Cereal & Milk pop up event that I happened upon in Times Square last summer.   

Kellogg’s Cereal & Milk Pop Up Store in Times Square..
complete with The Roots in concert.

Student were able to top their cereal bowls with a variety of toppings, including fresh strawberries, blueberries and dried banana chips.  Whole grain muffins, milk & juice selections rounded out the menu.  We planned our event, gained support from building administrators and teachers, and marketed this free event to parents, with the simple message:   Morning Rush got you frazzled?  Leave Breakfast to us!  

The results were phenomenal!  Our breakfast far exceeded our expectations!  Not only did we double our overall  breakfast participation at our elementary schools, we even served 56% more students who qualify for free and reduced price meals….  even though they can eat breakfast for free on any school day!  Making breakfast “free 4 all” made the breakfast a fun occasion and eliminated any stigma that might be associated with eating breakfast at school. Since the “Free 4 All” breakfast, our breakfast participation has remained strong, with count numbers consistently higher.

Now, even before we participated in Share Our Strength’s breakfast grant program, we had been working hard to implement strategies at all grade levels to increase breakfast participation.  The results were encouraging…. and counts were up by anywhere from 30% at our elementary schools to 150% at our middle schools to 50% at our our high school.  We believe that school breakfast supports the educational environment in our school system, and it is our mission to make sure that our students are well nourished and ready to learn.  

At a recent networking session, I was asked to share the key strategies that we had implemented to increase our breakfast participation.  Here are 4 Keys to Breakfast Success that we like to use:

1. Make Breakfast Accessible.  
We use multiple delivery methods to ensure that all students have the opportunity to eat breakfast at school.
  • Traditional Breakfast in the cafeteria.  Students come to the cafeteria at the beginning of the school day and eat their breakfast in the cafeteria as well.
  • Grab & Go Breakfast.  Students get breakfast in the cafeteria or other breakfast access point such as a breakfast cart, or vending machine.  The breakfast is then taken back to the classroom or eaten en route.  
  • First Class “Room Service” Breakfast cart.  At our middle schools, a breakfast cart, fully loaded with reimbursable breakfasts, goes from room to room during the first block of the day.  By utilizing this method, our middle school breakfast participation has increase by 150%. 

  • Extended Hours Breakfast  At our high school, we stay open for breakfast essentially until we switch over into lunch service, so students can access breakfast during a study hall or in-between classes.  
2. Make Breakfast FUN!
In our elementary schools, we host monthly Fun Friday Breakfasts.  A Fun Friday Breakfast is a themed breakfast, with a menu, decorations, etc. built around the theme.  Some of our themes have included Frozen, Angry Birds, March Madness, Winter Wonderland, Beach Party and Halloween.  Sometimes we give our small “prizes” such as stickers or Hawaiian leis, but more often the fun in just celebrating the theme.  Our Fun Friday Breakfasts have led to an increased breakfast participation of 30%.  The fun themes and marketing associated with the event have helped to encourage our youngest students to TRY school breakfast.   Additionally, these FUN events have helped to eliminate the stigma associated with eating school breakfast.  

Scenes from our Frozen Themed Fun Friday Breakfast

3. Make Breakfast Tasty.
Stay current with breakfast food trends and make sure you understand what students like, and how their breakfast preferences can fit within the school nutrition guidelines.  Some of our favorite breakfast items are yogurt/fruit/granola parfaits, smoothies, breakfast sandwiches and whole grain muffins. Taste test recipes and get ideas and opinions from your students.  

4. Market Your Program!
Toot your own horn!!!  This is hard to do but incredibly important.   Make sure you are telling administrators, teachers, parents and students about the importance of eating breakfast.  Make sure to highlight the nutrition, value and convenience of school breakfast.  Share menus, events and highlights through menus, newsletters, emails, Facebook, Twitter, your programs website, etc.  
These strategies are working for us.  We still have a long way to go (there is always room to grow!) ….  but we continue to strategize, innovate, and look for new ways to make sure our students are well nourished and ready to learn.   Maybe by School Breakfast Week in March of 2016,  every student in our schools will start the day with a nutritious breakfast!  

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