Educators see benefits of universal free breakfast program

Mornings always start the same way in Denelle Hoff’s third-grade classroom at Williams Elementary School.

Sure, the pencils, papers and books come out. But not right away. First, students get food, maybe some eggs and biscuits, a banana or orange and a carton of milk.

Then they eat at their desks, just as if they were sitting at the kitchen table at home. All the children, eating breakfast together.

For Landon Cantrell, 8, it’s “cool.” Not having to go to the lunchroom, who doesn’t love that? And Melody Flynn, also 8, likes to eat breakfast alongside her classmates, especially on cinnamon roll day.

But educators at Williams see benefits of the universal free breakfast program that go way beyond cool and fun. Throughout the school, they see focused, more alert children. Calmer kids. Students who no longer need to see the nurse for stomach aches, who don’t get in tussles with other kids each morning, who don’t ask every few minutes how long until lunch.

“Food is fuel for the brain and body, and some were literally coming to school empty,” says Wanita Watts, the Springfield Public Schools’ nutritional services director, who applied for the pilot grant last year. “Now kids are ready to learn.”

In November 2010, Williams was the first school in the Springfield district to pilot the breakfast program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Principal Jennifer Webb jumped at the chance because she knew many of her students were coming to school hungry and some had not eaten since lunch the day before.

She also knew that only 45 percent of her students were taking advantage of the morning meal at school. Nearly 90 percent are enrolled in the free- and reduced-price food program.

Many would arrive too late, and just want to get to class. “Some would go into the cafeteria, look at the line and just turn around,” Webb said.

Now, her students are starting the day with a healthy breakfast — even the cinnamon rolls are whole grain. Some students pass on the meal because they’ve eaten at home, but roughly 92 percent of the students eat in the classroom.

Tardies are down. Attendance is up. And for the first time in four years, the Title I school made adequate yearly progress in both math and communication arts.

“If we feed kids, fill their bellies,” says Webb, “how can it hurt?”

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Initially, teachers weren’t keen on the idea.

“I was like, ‘Food in my class, what?’ ” said Hoff. “ ‘Every morning, what?’ It was daunting at first.”

Teachers worried that they’d have to add “cook” to their list of duties. And what about the cleanup? Wouldn’t the whole thing steal instructional time?

But then the program took shape. Cafeteria staffers — who often wear T-shirts with “Got Breakfast?” on the back — came in each morning to prepare the morning meals. Then the food is loaded into insulated bags and taken to the rooms on carts.

Webb told her teachers that they could manage the meal however they wanted, and they have. Some students go to class, do a little reading and then have breakfast. Others have the food waiting for them on their desks.

Hoff prefers to let her students come in, gather their food and sit quietly at their desks as they eat.

Samantha Spurr, 9, wouldn’t change that setup at all.

“We don’t have to eat in the lunchroom anymore,” she says as she finishes her scrambled eggs. “It was really loud in there. Sometimes when people are screaming, it hurts my ears.”

Since Williams launched the program, 14 more Springfield elementary schools and one middle school have adopted it. By the end of the year, the district hopes to add at least two more schools, including a high school.

Each school serving breakfast in the classroom is now reaching more than 90 percent of its students. The middle school serves about 98 percent, and before the program only about 20 percent were eating breakfast at school.

The cost is minimal. The federal government reimburses schools for the cost of the meals, and the equipment — carts, food bags and supplies like wipes and utensils — run roughly $250 per classroom.

“I see the value of this program,” Watts says. “It’s amazing what you see with these kids.”

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By 8:15, when Webb’s voice comes over the intercom to welcome students to another day at Williams Elementary, just two kids in Miss Hoff’s class are still eating. Classrooms open at 8, and most students get there shortly after so they have plenty of time to eat.

(Those who come to school after the bell will eat in the hallway so they don’t disrupt class.)

As Webb’s voice fills the room, most students already have their books out and are reading quietly.

Program organizers estimate that it takes about 12 minutes to feed students each morning. And teachers figure they have more instructional time these days because students are more focused and not disruptive.

Most kids eat everything. Some mornings, kids tuck away their fruit to eat later or take home for a snack, even dinner. What Webb likes is that her students get a full meal.

She still remembers a child from a few years ago. His mom would bring him to school each morning and sit with him as he ate a free breakfast in the cafeteria. The mother would pick from his plate, eat some of the food and hand pieces to two other children in a stroller.

“The entire family was eating off his tray,” said Webb, who at the time would make sure teachers knew the boy might need crackers or other food later in the morning.

These days the principal walks the hall each morning, peeks inside the classrooms and sees all the children with food in front of them. It’s like a big family meal.

“It gives me chills to see the kids happy and eating,” she said. “It gives me a sense of pride in what my teachers are doing and what we’re able to provide our kiddos.

“When you feed kids, they’re going to work for you.”

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