National School Breakfast Week

It’s National School Breakfast Week, a celebration of schools that participate in the National School Breakfast Program, and an opportunity for schools across the country to promote the benefits of a healthy school breakfast.   

We all grew up hearing that familiar phrase, “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day”.  It seems that our grandparents and parents drilled it into our brains… and in fact, studies show that 93% of Americans would concur that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.  Starting the day with a nutritious breakfast puts fuel in the tank, jump starts your metabolism and gives the brain the energy it needs to do the important work of the day.  And yet, only 44% of Americans report starting their day with breakfast on a regular basis.   With that ground work already in place, with more than half of all Americans routinely skipping breakfast,  our challenge with School Breakfast is to teach our youth a better way.  We want to make a healthy breakfast an absolute “must do” part of the day.  Setting aside a week to celebrate the National School Breakfast program gives us an opportunity to get the word out.  All across the country this week, School Nutrition Directors and nutrition advocates are getting the message out: on television talk shows, social media, articles in the news.  The story is this:  School Breakfast Changes Lives!

Here are some fast facts about School Breakfast: 

1. Students who eat breakfast have better attention and memory.
2. Students who eat school breakfast attend, on average, 1.5 more days of school per year and   score 17.5% higher on standardized math tests.
3. The School Breakfast Program significantly improves the cognitive abilities and learning capacities of children.
4. Students who participate in school breakfast show improved attendance, behavior, standardized achievement test scores, and decreased tardiness. 

These are just a few of the benefits of School Breakfast, and yet,  statistics show that only 1/2 of the students that are eligible to eat breakfast at school for free or at very low cost do so on a regular basis.    The data is the same in my own district, where, even though we have had a 95% increase in breakfast participation over the past 5 years, we are still only serving breakfast to approximately 50% of our students who qualify for free and reduced price meals, and just 30% of our students overall.  We have seen growth, thank goodness!  But what about the students that are still not accessing breakfast at school?  Are they eating breakfast at home?  Did they have time? Was there adequate food in the home to ensure that the breakfast was well balanced?

In our district, we have experienced many school breakfast successes over the past 5 years, leading to our 95% increase in breakfast participation (admittedly, our participation prior was so low that we were at risk of canceling our school breakfast program altogether).  However, we have also experiences our fair share of challenges.  

Successes have come slowly and gradually.  Changing and improving the menu, gaining the trust of parents and caregivers (“if I send my child to school without breakfast, will they really have an opportunity to eat?”), hosting fun, themed events to encourage our customers to attend (such as our monthly Fun Friday Breakfasts), keeping on trend with menu options.  It has taken 5 years and a team of incredibly dedicated staff who will make 800 “Olaf” String Cheese Snowman when asked. 

At our middle schools, the school nutrition staff have altered their morning schedules and routines, in order meet the needs of their teenage customers.  At this grade level, we offer grab & go breakfast carts in the hallways, and First Class Room Service Breakfast Carts, during the first period homeroom time.   Encouraging teens to eat breakfast is always a challenge, and it requires a menu that is “on trend” and timing that suits their appetites.  It’s essential that teaching staff be “on board”, and that they understand the long term benefits of school breakfast.

Middle School Breakfast Cart

Flexibility is key: flexibility of all the stakeholders.  Custodial staff, transportation staff, school nutrition staff, teachers, administration – all must be willing to collaborate.  The end result is well fed students who are ready to learn and succeed in school.  If students are hungry, their focus will be on their stomachs, they won’t feel well, won’t be able to concentrate.  

Challenges remain lurking around every corner, making it necessary to always be flexible, always willing to change course, change directions.  A change in administration can change scheduling, which in turn can adversely affect breakfast service.  Teaching staff & administration are always looking to fill every minute with necessary instructional time. Collaboration is key.  Changes in regulations send us back to the kitchen for recipe development and product procurement.  Labor and budgetary cut backs can also adversely impact a school breakfast program.  

Creativity, collaboration, flexibility and willingness to change – these are the steps we will continue to take until we are reaching all the hungry children, ensuring that they start their mornings well fed and ready to learn.  We’ve come a long way… we have a long way to go.  50% of our students who are experiencing food insecurity are not eating breakfast at school.  We need to reach them, we need to feed them.   They are our future.  We are feeding the future. 

Breakfast wisdom from A. A. Milne

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