Nearly nine out of 10 principals who have implemented breakfast after the bell programs in their schools would encourage other principals to follow suit. Survey findings released in November by the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) and NASSP found that principals not only believe such programs are effective for increasing school breakfast participation, but they also spoke highly of the gains in the classroom, as students are more attentive and ready to learn.
More than 100 principals were surveyed for the report, Breakfast After the Bell: Equipping Students for Academic Success, Secondary School Principals Share What Works. In it, principals shared their firsthand experiences of how they introduced breakfast after the bell programs—where breakfast is either served in the classroom, from “grab and go” breakfast carts in the hallway, or from other alternative service options—and how these programs continue to work successfully. The results were overwhelmingly positive. Principals shared benefits they were seeing in the classroom, including:
Improved student attentiveness (46 percent said so)
Fewer occurrences of tardiness (32 percent) and absenteeism (21 percent)
Fewer visits to the school nurse (21 percent)
Fewer disciplinary referrals (18 percent)
Improved reading and math test scores (9 percent)
This is good news for schools, and it adds to the already broad body of research that shows that breakfast after the bell yields myriad benefits for schools and students. But what does this mean for principals who are considering such programs?
Overwhelmingly, principals noted that successful implementation of breakfast after the bell programs were rooted in widespread support and collaboration among all of those affected—teachers, students, parents, and other school staff. More than half of the surveyed principals did not encounter challenges while launching such a program.
To ensure a smooth kickoff, principals worked closely with teachers to identify and directly address concerns with program implementation. Gathering student feedback proved valuable—based on their responses, principals incorporated popular breakfast items into the meal service. Some principals sent home letters to educate parents about the importance of making breakfast available during the school day, including information about how the first meal of the day can foster academic success. Training sessions led by food service personnel were critical to preparing teachers and staff for program rollout.
Addressing logistics is also a key to success. Remember to look at janitorial and cafeteria staffing hours and modify them as necessary. For example, increasing or shifting hours enables staff to prepare for breakfast distribution and manage waste removal. Finally, it’s also crucial to allow principals and planning teams a chance to evaluate the program so they can alter the program, if necessary, to better accommodate instructional time.
Putting Theory into Practice
Principal Karen Loy of Northwest Middle School in Knoxville, TN, who implemented a breakfast after the bell program, cannot stress enough the importance of having a thoughtful plan and gaining the support of building stakeholders first. Initially, Loy pitched the idea of launching an alternative breakfast service model to her staff by couching the program in the needs of the students. Hunger was a prevalent problem in Northwest Middle School—80 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price meals, yet only 40 percent of students were eating school breakfast.
Next, a voluntary committee of teachers was assembled to craft the program structure. The committee developed a plan and then guided staff in its implementation. “I think because it was teacher-directed, teacher-driven, and then presented by the teachers, the other [teachers] just said, ‘Oh yeah, we can do this,'” Loy says.
Loy also reached out to the custodial staff, providing additional perks to gain support for the breakfast initiative. Staff assisting with the program were provided free breakfast, with the costs covered by the food service department.
Finally, students were also prepared for the new program. All students were assembled to discuss changes to the morning routine that would accommodate the new grab-and-go program. With an eye on convenience, students were told that breakfast would be served from portable stations placed strategically in high-traffic areas of the school building. After grabbing a meal from a kiosk, students were permitted to eat their meal in the classroom. As a way to help streamline program logistics, students were delegated responsibilities, such as notifying students to wipe down desks or placing trash outside the classroom door for immediate pickup.
After the program’s launch, school breakfast participation jumped from 40 percent to between 60 and 65 percent on an average day at Northwest Middle School, Loy says. She strongly affirms that her breakfast after the bell program helps meet the physical needs of her students and supports her school’s learning environment. Loy reminds other principals of the detrimental consequences of hunger in the classroom, and of the role they can play in sustaining a breakfast after the bell program.
“You have to have leadership in the building that holds that as a core value—that if you don’t meet children’s basic needs, it doesn’t matter how great a teacher is standing in front of them. [They’re] not going to be able to learn,” Loy notes.
Making the Case
Breakfast participation is still far too low across the United States, especially among low-income students. FRAC’s research shows that for every 100 low-income students eating school lunch, only 54 are also eating school breakfast. (For the most recent breakfast participation data for your state, visit FRAC’s website, www.frac.org, to read the School Breakfast Scorecard.)
This gap is especially troubling for principals seeking to improve the overall school environment. Research shows that students who eat school breakfast increase their math and reading scores as well as improve their speed and memory in cognitive tests. It also shows that children who eat breakfast at school—closer to class and test-taking time—perform better on standardized tests.
Given all of these benefits, breakfast after the bell makes sense. Integrating breakfast into the school day removes time barriers, serves the meal at a time when students are ready to eat, and makes it a communal experience.
Mieka Sanderson is a child nutrition policy analyst at the Food Research and Action Center. Contact her for more information at [email protected].