March is National Nutrition Month, the perfect time to shine the refrigerator light on providing our youth with healthy eating habits and access to nutritious meals. Nutrition is directly related to our health – it’s more than just a plate of fruits and vegetables, it’s about eating the right amounts of nutrients and servings to increase mental and physical health and overall mood. One meal that continues to play a starring role in our kids’ health and academic success – BREAKFAST. But why?
Research shows that not only are breakfast-eaters less likely to be obese, they are more likely to have lower cholesterol and less likely to develop Type 2 diabetes. But that’s not all. There are many other benefits to eating breakfast, like improved academic performance. However, many Americans experience hunger and food insecurity. In 2015 alone, Feeding America reported that 42.2 million Americans lived in food insecure households, including 13.1 million children. That’s more children going hungry than the total populations of New York City and Los Angeles put together.
As a teacher and a parent, I know how a nutritious morning meal not only sets a child up for success but provides structure for their day and helps contribute to the needs of the whole child. In my classroom, I can tell when a student comes to class hungry. They do not have the fuel to learn, which has a negative impact both on their academics and behavior. The lack of energy and focus leads to behavioral and attention problems, which not only impacts the student but the class as a whole. Every child deserves the chance to have the opportunity to thrive.
The federal School Breakfast Program makes it possible for millions of children from low-income families to start their day with a nutritious breakfast, yet according to the latest Food Research & Action Center’s (FRAC) School Breakfast Scorecard, nearly half of low-income children who are eligible for a free or reduced-price breakfast through the School Breakfast Program don’t eat it. With a rise in students regularly coming to school hungry, why are students who are qualified for free and reduced-price meals at school not taking advantage of the School Breakfast Program?
Lack of awareness about the School Breakfast Program, lack of time to eat breakfast, late bus schedules and stigma associated with the program are some of the reasons students don’t eat school breakfast when it is served in the cafeteria. However, there’s more than one way to serve breakfast to students at school, like moving it out of the cafeteria and into the classroom for everyone to enjoy.
Recognizing the issue of childhood hunger and the low participation rates of the School Breakfast Program, schools and organizations are doing something to improve it. For example, a group of education and nutrition organizations that I work with called Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom, has helped more than 37,000 students start their day with a healthy breakfast and funded school districts to implement alternative breakfast models. Alternative breakfast models include:
- Breakfast in the Classroom – Students eat pre-assembled breakfasts together in class.
- Grab ‘n Go – The food service staff prepares breakfast meals in a designated location such as a cart or kiosk for students to grab en route to class.
- Second Chance Breakfast – Breakfast is served after the first class or during mid-morning. Breakfast is usually delivered or students pick up it up from a designated location.
A grant opportunity through the Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom can provide technical assistance and support to help bring alternative breakfast models to schools. Districts in select states can apply to implement the breakfast programs to help fight childhood hunger.
Why should you care about breakfast in the classroom?
I know the morning hours can be a hectic time – getting kids dressed and out the door can turn into a monumental task. Busy lifestyles and bus and commuting schedules can all interfere with children being fed breakfast at home. In addition, we’ve all heard the phrase, “I’m not hungry” when kids are getting ready in the morning; of course, they will have a bigger appetite later in the morning.
By serving breakfast at school, after the opening bell, it provides all students with the morning nutrition they need to start their day ready to thrive regardless if they qualify for free- and reduced lunch.
Breakfast in the classroom alleviates those hectic morning routines and also brings a sense of community to the students when they eat together. Having a nutritious start to the day not only improves their concentration, alertness, comprehension, and learning, but it also reduces disciplinary problems, tardiness, and visits to the nurse.
What can you do to get involved?
- Form a School Breakfast parent action group or Breakfast in the Classroom exploration team. You could also work with the existing PTA or PTO, School Improvement Team, School Nutrition Team and/or Health Committee to engage and inform other parents about breakfast at school.
- Work with your school’s principal to set up a Breakfast in the Classroom information table during Back to School Night or other events where parents come to the school (like Kindergarten registration or a PTA meeting).
- Meet with community leaders and representatives (like your local and state government and/or boards of education) to create awareness, establish support, and explore options for program support through legislation and policy.
- Meet with teachers, educational support staff, and administrators at your school. Ask how to support a whole school effort to explore options to expand the school breakfast program at your school or how to start one. At the end of the meeting ask: What is the next step, who will be responsible for the step, and when will the next step take place?
When schools move breakfast out of the cafeteria and into the classroom, every child can gain the true benefits of having a nutritious meal to kick off their school day. Embracing school breakfast programs can significantly increase breakfast participation and overall health and academic performance that students need to succeed.
Scott DiMauro, a high school social studies teacher from Worthington, became Ohio Education Association (OEA) Vice President in 2013. He is a national spokesperson for Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom, a consortium of national education and nutrition organizations including the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) Foundation, The NEA Foundation, and the School Nutrition Foundation (SNF). The Partners provide technical assistance and support to school districts to implement the Breakfast in the Classroom programs. Prior to becoming a full-time OEA officer, Scott served for nine years as President of Central OEA/NEA.
*Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the piece do not reflect an endorsement by NBC News.