The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is in full swing and aims to ensure that all students’ holistic needs are being met so that they are prepared for a full day of learning. Attention is on school districts to develop plans that meet ESSA’s goals, and school breakfast plays a critical role, especially when many students live in food-insecure households. As leaders in the community, principals are tasked with ensuring all students have access to a quality education, and they should be an active voice at the decision-making table. Principals have the awareness and experience to know that a perfect curriculum alone does not ensure students will succeed as long as factors outside of the school, such as food insecurity, are negatively impacting a student’s ability to learn.
School breakfast is an important tool that results in numerous physical and academic benefits for students and schools overall, including better test scores, fewer distractions in the classroom throughout the morning, improved dietary intake, reduced food insecurity, and improved student health. Breakfast after the bell service models (e.g., breakfast in the classroom, “grab and go,” and second-chance breakfast) ensure students can access this important meal by eliminating barriers to participation, such as late bus arrivals that may cause students to miss breakfast.
An extensive body of research by the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) demonstrates the negative impact of both younger and older children living in a food-insecure household on academic achievement, student behavior, and health. Adolescents experiencing hunger have lower math scores and poorer grades in general, and are more likely to repeat a grade and receive special education services than low-income children who are not experiencing hunger. When students experience food insecurity, their social, emotional, and behavioral development can be negatively impacted, increasing the risk of behavioral issues that interfere with learning. Teens experiencing hunger are more likely to have been suspended from school and have difficulty getting along with other kids.
Access to good nutrition through the federal nutrition programs is an evidence-based strategy to support food-insecure students. School breakfast, in particular, is linked to improved academic achievement and reduced absenteeism, tardiness, and behavioral referrals. Additionally, students who eat breakfast at school—closer to class and test-taking time—perform better on standardized tests than those who skip breakfast or eat breakfast at home.
Advocating for School Nutrition
Since ESSA directs school districts to use evidence-based interventions to improve student outcomes, principals should advocate for best practices that increase access to school nutrition programs, such as implementing a breakfast after the bell service model. Breakfast after the bell is an innovative strategy that makes school breakfast part of the culture by moving it out of the cafeteria and integrating it into the day, ensuring students get the nutrition they need to succeed academically. Breakfast can be served in the classroom or in high-traffic areas through a grab-and-go model.
Traditional school breakfast, which occurs before the start of the day in the cafeteria, poses barriers for students. Busy morning schedules, late bus arrivals, a desire to socialize with friends, and the stigma that school breakfast is only for “poor kids” are all reasons students do not eat breakfast at school.
Understanding the important role breakfast plays in improving student achievement, many principals elect to offer a morning meal or snack at the start of the day on testing days as a strategy to improve standardized test scores. Breakfast after the bell extends this strategy to each school day, so students can focus while they are learning and perform better throughout the year.
FRAC, in partnership with NASSP, surveyed 105 secondary school principals who implemented breakfast after the bell and found that 87 percent were pleased with their breakfast programs and believed other principals should consider launching a similar model. The positive response among secondary school principals regarding breakfast after the bell prompted FRAC and NASSP to release a toolkit that assists principals with launching the program in their schools. Online versions of this report and toolkit can be found at www.frac.org.
ESSA presents an important opportunity for principals to advocate for the holistic needs of their students. In 2016, the USDA found 6.5 million children were living in food-insecure households. With that in mind, schools have a responsibility to provide the adequate nutrition struggling students need to succeed. Offering school breakfast is not enough, however, if students are not accessing the meal. Serving breakfast after the start of the school day or using successful existing models such as breakfast in the classroom, grab and go, or second-chance breakfast, makes participating in school breakfast convenient and easy for students. When all students participate together, breakfast after the bell becomes normal and supports everyone’s academic success.
Alison Maurice, MSW, is a child nutrition policy analyst at the Food Research & Action Center in Washington, D.C.
Sidebar: What Is a Food-Insecure Household?
According to information released by the USDA in 2016, a food-insecure household lacks sufficient money or other resources to acquire enough food to meet the needs of all members of the household at some point during the year.