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Getting kids started with breakfast in the classroom

We know this line by heart: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It gives us the energy to start our day off right. Without it, we feel sluggish and unable to concentrate. Unfortunately, as many teachers and principals know all too well, every morning too many children arrive at school hungry. Their education pays the price as grumbling stomachs focus their minds on their next meal and not class work.  They can’t concentrate, they fall behind on their work, or they may be disruptive in class.

Thankfully, students attending Boston Public Schools no longer start the school day hungry.  And many schools are experiencing the positive results.  To ensure all children have a healthy start to their day, Boston Public Schools has made it a priority to improve participation in school breakfast. All Boston Public Schools offer free breakfast to all students, and many are serving breakfast in the classroom.
The Breakfast in the Classroom initiative takes the traditional school breakfast approach and improves it with one key ingredient: the classroom.  With support from Newman’s Own Foundation, Boston Public Schools implemented breakfast in the classroom in eight elementary schools during the 2012-2013 school year. As a result, an additional 600 children receive breakfast each day at the schools - a 49 percent increase in participation. The district plans to continue expanding the program to additional schools in the fall of 2013.   

Before implementing Breakfast in the Classroom at the Mather school, where I am Assistant Principal, we were not sure exactly what to expect.  We wanted to make sure children were starting the day with full stomachs and ready to learn, but we didn’t want to take valuable time away from our academic programs.  After a year of offering this service to our students, we have learned that providing breakfast in the classroom not only provides more students with the nourishment they need to thrive, but it is closely connected to the academic success and overall well-being of the school.  

We are pleased to see less behavioral problems among our students, more learning time, and better academic results.  Mirroring the research that has been done on the subject, our students’ math and reading scores have improved.  The positive effects of school breakfast ripple around the classroom, and around the school.  Research shows that schools that offer breakfast in the classroom, free of charge to all students, regardless of their families’ income, report decreases in discipline and psychological problems, decreases in visits to school nurses and tardiness, and increases in student attentiveness and attendance.  We have also seen those results.

Having more healthy and hunger-free students is something that all schools should strive for, and increasing participation in school breakfast is one way to reach that goal.  School districts with the highest participation rates have large-scale programs that allow students to eat breakfast in their classrooms at the beginning of each school day.  I am proud that Boston is among them. Our program at Mather is proving that breakfast in the classroom leads to higher participation rates.  We have increased the number of students receiving breakfast at our school each day by 100 students since starting the program.

According to the Food Research and Action Center, during the 2011-2012 school year, nearly 70 low-income students eat breakfast for every 100 that eat lunch in Boston – making us a national leader in the movement towards ending child hunger and a model for school districts across the state, where on average only 43 low-income children eat breakfast for every 100 that receive lunch.  

Following Boston’s lead, the state of Massachusetts can do better. If Massachusetts reached the goal of serving 70 low-income children breakfast for every 100 that eat school lunch, it would serve an additional 77,664 children.  Financially speaking, school districts also win. Reaching the 70 goal would mean that Massachusetts would receive more than $19 million in federal child nutrition funding.

While good progress is being made in Boston, Massachusetts still has a way to go. Making sure all children have an adequate meal at the start of the day should be a top priority.  Our children - and our communities - deserve no less.

Karyn Stranberg is the Assistant Principal at the Mather School in Dorchester.