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Full bellies, hungrier minds: School breakfast innovations in North Carolina

Tristan Chavez remembers going to first period hungry. Chavez is a nationally ranked soccer player who practiced first thing in the morning before heading to class — too late for before-school breakfast.

He works hard on the soccer field, and he also works hard in the classroom as he maintains a track to become the first person in his family to go to college. But the hunger made paying attention difficult. Who can think about symbolism on an empty stomach?

Last year, to his great relief, he started getting breakfast in class, during first period.

“At my school, students know that teachers care about us,” Chavez said. “Not just about the learning, but about all that we are and all that we can be.”

The Department of Public Instruction is partnering with organizations like No Kid Hungry, a national program launched by the nonprofit Share Our Strength, to develop and offer innovative school breakfast programs designed to help students like Chavez. And there are a lot of students like Chavez.

According to data compiled by No Kid Hungry, there is a significant breakfast gap in North Carolina. The breakfast gap is the difference between the number of students who eat free or reduced-price lunch and the number of students who eat school breakfast.

In North Carolina, of those who receive free or reduced-price lunch, only 58% are eating school breakfast. Additionally, only 42% of students who are eligible for free or reduced-price breakfast are eating breakfast.

These numbers offer insight into a specific group of students who may be hungry but aren’t getting fed. The state wants to take advantage of federal funding that is available to feed these students in recognition of the impact proper nutrition can have on a child’s ability to learn.

“School can be a place where they can get the good start to the day and be ready to learn,” said Julie Pittman, the 2018 Western Region Teacher of the Year who taught Chavez’s first-period class last year. “It eliminates the barrier for all kids, and it doesn’t necessarily have to do with whether you can afford to feed your kid.”

Students are hungry in the mornings for several reasons. Some can’t get a proper breakfast at home. More than one in five students in North Carolina struggle with hunger, as compared to one in seven nationally. According to the USDA, North Carolina is one of 12 states where food insecurity is above the national average.

But many students, whether they play a sport and have morning practice or because they’re just not hungry before they leave the home, sit down in class and hear the first bell two or more hours after they’ve had a proper meal.

“What about the kid who has to catch the bus at 5:45 in the morning?” Pittman asked. “They may have had breakfast at 5:30, but by the time they’ve gotten to school and had their first class, their lunch may not be until 11, and they may need another meal.”

The reason why they don’t get that at school has little to do with availability. Nearly every school in North Carolina participates in a school breakfast program, but traditionally this looks like a cafeteria-style breakfast offering before the school day begins.

If students don’t get to school in time to get through the breakfast line, sit down, and eat without being late to class, they’ll skip breakfast.

Julie Pittman addresses the State Board during its fall planning session at North Carolina A&T State University in November. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC.

DPI conducted several statewide surveys over the past decade asking why students don’t eat school breakfast.

“My bus is always late,” “I’m afraid to miss morning bell,” and “I don’t like standing in line with the big kids” were some of the responses. And, yes, economic shaming had something to do with it, too.

Lynn Harvey, chief of the state’s child nutrition services, remembers visiting a school and speaking with one student who thought school breakfast was just for poor people and didn’t want to make “the walk of shame.”

“But it’s for all children,” Harvey said. “We don’t want any child to feel ashamed because every child needs to eat breakfast.”

The state, in partnership with No Kid Hungry, is moving toward innovative school breakfast programs. Three programs No Kid Hungry highlights are grab-and-go, where students can stop by a cart and walk away with breakfast; breakfast in the classroom, where food is brought in and students have 15 minutes to eat together; and second-chance breakfast, where students can visit the cafeteria after the day has begun and grab a bite.

“I am not hungry at 7:30,” Harvey said, expressing her particular fondness for second-chance breakfast. “But boy am I ready to enjoy breakfast at 9:30.”

The choice of which innovative breakfast option to use is left to the school, and they base it on things like school layout, schedule, and student needs and preferences.

“It’s thinking outside the box,” said Fred Gilbert, child nutrition supervisor for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. “It’s accepting that it’s going to be different, and it’s going to take some planning. But it’s deciding that it’s worth it and finding the way that fits best for your school.”

The idea, Gilbert said, is to encourage the conversation. He says it’s about getting buy-in from school leaders, and then having school leadership, teachers, and nutritional staff work together to ensure kids are fed during the day without adding too much cleanup or taking too much time.

“It doesn’t have to take up a lot of time,” he said. “It can be done in those 15 minutes, and if you get the right processes in place, it doesn’t create a lot of the extra work for clean up and all of that. You have to ask, ‘Can we plan 15 minutes and have that in the planning concept,’ when you’re looking at the big picture moving forward.”

In some districts, it requires funding help via grant dollars to afford equipment – such as carts for grab-and-go breakfasts or ways to keep hot food hot and cold food cold.

And as for the planning, Harvey says it’s worth it.

“You get healthier students,” she said. “You get students who are ready to learn.”

According to No Kid Hungry, students who eat breakfast have 17.5% higher scores on standardized math tests, and they attend 1.5 more days of school per year. That’s why, according to the 2017 study, teachers reported digging into their own pockets to make sure their students weren’t hungry in class. Teachers reported spending an average of $300 per year buying their students food.

DPI is supporting the initiatives by providing training and professional development for school nutrition staff. The State Board recently made school nutrition a priority by recommitting to a resolution that makes time spent offering school breakfast during the school day count as instructional time.

Meanwhile, Pittman is traveling the state to help encourage these discussions, answer questions and offer advice from her experience working with dozens of schools. She is on loan from Rutherford County Schools this year to serve as educator outreach manager for No Kid Hungry.

She started advocating for school breakfast last year when she was invited to the governor’s mansion for a luncheon in 2018.

“I think one of the things that falls through the cracks sometimes is understanding childhood hunger,” she said. “I think because of my personal experience with it, but also because of the students I’ve taught, it’s just a natural passion of mine.”

As a parent, Pittman’s family has the resources for and access to healthy meals. But, like many families, the mornings and evenings are busy times. The family can’t always sit down together for a family meal every day. She is grateful that her kids’ schools can provide what she can’t: “They get a family meal every morning in their class,” she said.

As a teacher, Pittman has noticed her students stashing food in their backpacks — half-eaten burgers, open cartons of milk. She’s seen hunger in her classrooms.

“I knew that probably they were taking that food home for an evening meal,” she said. “Or, even worse, they were taking it home for a younger sibling who wasn’t being served by the public school system.”

From a 2017 survey by No Kid Hungry.

She remembers Monday mornings as the worst.

“Mondays are horrible for kids who haven’t eaten for three days,” she said.

She’s also seen the positive impact of getting students breakfast after the school day begins.

“[I’m] somebody who understands what it means to educate the whole child,” she said. “And that doesn’t necessarily mean through content and curriculum. It actually means that we, as a public school, are a one-stop shop for our students. They come to us early in the morning, and they long for food and they long for belonging and they long for love and acceptance. They long for all of it. And we’re there for them as a public school system to give it to them.”

Since getting involved last year, Pittman has visited several districts, met with school nutrition directors across the state, and helped districts write grants for new breakfast programs.

She’s seen several counties adopt one of the three innovative ways of getting students breakfast during the school day and increase the number of children they feed by hundreds.

“There’s a lot of excitement in districts that have huge breakfast gaps,” she said. “They’re all seeing that there’s value in this work. They’re going to change the narrative for many kids in their schools.”

While progress is being made, there is much to be done. Harvey said the first goal is to reduce the breakfast gap by increasing the number of students who receive free and reduced-price lunch also getting breakfast from 59% modestly up to 70%. The state will receive an additional $2.5 million in federal funding, by way of school breakfast reimbursements, if it accomplishes this.

“We’re not where we want to be,” Harvey said. “We still have issues we need to address in order to bridge the gap, so to speak.”

Rupen Fofaria

Rupen Fofaria was the equity and learning differences reporter for EducationNC from 2018 through October 2023.