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Busting school breakfast myths at No Kid Hungry NC’s annual conference

“Kids come to school and they walk down our hallways and they don’t say, ‘I’m hungry.’ They don’t say, ‘There wasn’t anything in the fridge at home.’ … Their stomach is empty and they think that’s normal,” said Matt Bristow-Smith, the 2019 North Carolina Principal of the Year. “The next thing you know, you change your system, and you make it possible for them to eat two or three meals at school and possibly an afterschool snack and you see them and they realize they’ve been seen.”

At No Kid Hungry North Carolina’s ninth annual NC Child Hunger Leaders Conference in Chapel Hill on Wednesday, Bristow-Smith discussed the power of school meals — and how simple it was for his school, Edgecombe Early College, to make sure more students were getting those meals.

For him, offering breakfast during the school day was a fairly simple process. He connected with the right people, made a call to his district’s child nutrition director, and changed the school’s master schedule to include second chance breakfast.

However, statewide, participation rates in school breakfast remain low. Roughly 661,000 North Carolina public school students who are qualified for free- and reduced-price meals ate school lunch during the 2018-19 school year but only 383,000 ate school breakfast according to data from the Food Research and Action Center. That leaves a “breakfast gap” of more than 250,000 students who are missing out on a potentially crucial low or no-cost meal.

This gap is the result of a variety of factors, including transportation barriers that make it difficult for students to arrive to school early, cafeteria logistics, and the stigma associated with school breakfast. To increase participation in the program, No Kid Hungry NC promotes innovative after-the-bell methods of serving school breakfast that move the meal out of the cafeteria and into the regular school day, such as breakfast in the classroom, grab-and-go kiosks, and second chance breakfast. All of those models are eligible for reimbursements under the School Breakfast Program, a federally-funded United States Department of Agriculture initiative created in 1975.

But teachers, administrators, and district leaders may face barriers to implementing these innovative school breakfast models. During the conference, speakers busted school breakfast myths and discussed what it actually looks like to offer breakfast as part of the school day.

School breakfast myth #1: Breakfast in the classroom takes away from instructional time and places an unnecessary burden on teachers.

From October 2018 to October 2019, PS Jones Middle School in Beaufort County had the largest increase in breakfast participation among all middle schools in North Carolina. Tracey Nixon, principal at PS Jones, said that at first, breakfast in the classroom seemed like one more burden on teachers. But through careful planning, they made it work.

Nixon described the seamless system her school uses to deliver breakfast in the classroom from 7:25 to 7:45 a.m. every morning. Cafeteria staff prepare meals in advance and bring them down the hallways in carts each morning. Teachers arrive by 7:20 a.m. and pick up two insulated bags — one for milk and juice and one for food — along with a class roster and a trash bag. When breakfast ends at 7:45 a.m., teachers place trash bags in the hallway to be collected by custodial staff, ensuring that breakfast doesn’t cut into instructional time.

“This is something that can be done. It’s very easy. We coordinate through child nutrition, and after the first two weeks, all the complaints went away — it just started becoming a normal part of the day,” said Nixon.

School breakfast myth #2: School food is unhealthy, and it makes a mess in the classroom.

In Hoke County, there’s no breakfast gap to be seen — the ratio of students eating school lunch to students eating school breakfast is 101%. Deborah Davis Carpenter, school nutrition director at Hoke County Schools, said that all elementary and middle schools in the district offer breakfast in the classroom, and all high schools offer second chance breakfast, with the addition of grab-and-go options at a few schools.

According to Carpenter, breakfast served in the classroom is the same food that is traditionally served in the cafeteria setting — including hot meals, like whole grain sausage biscuits — that meet the federal nutrition requirements for school breakfast.

School breakfast myth #3: The cafeteria is separate from the rest of the school and of no concern to teachers and principals.

In early 2019, Nate Barilich, a teacher and school improvement team co-chair at Enloe High School in Wake County, began a grassroots effort to offer second chance breakfast with fellow co-chair Kathleen Wit and a team of other educators, parents, and his principal. After meeting with key stakeholders, visiting other schools who offered the model, surveying staff, making tweaks to the bell schedule, and purchasing extra large trash cans, Enloe began offering second chance breakfast in early September 2019.

Between first and second period each day, three kiosks and two cafeteria lines serve breakfast for 10 minutes, followed by seven dedicated minutes for students to eat their breakfast and watch the school news before second period begins. Enloe’s bell schedule calls this the “breakfast club transition.”

From March 2019 to December 2019, the number of students eating federally reimbursed school breakfast at Enloe rose from 110 to 252, and the percentage of free- and reduced-price eligible lunch eaters who also ate school breakfast rose from 39% to 82%.

“What I want to say is the myth is busted. … If you wait for the right time, you are wasting time,” said Barilich.

School breakfast myth #4: Making school breakfast free to all students is a drain on the finances of the school system.

Lois Hood, child nutrition director at Richmond County Schools, wasn’t able to attend the conference, but she has busted this myth in the past. According to reporting from the Richmond County Daily Journal, Richmond County Schools began offering breakfast in the classroom in the 2018-19 school year as a way to increase participation.

According to Hood, when comparing September 2018 with September 2019, the program increased the district’s revenue by $55,217.98. Comparing October 2018 to October 2019, revenue increased by $78,677.34. When students swipe their ID cards during breakfast in the classroom, the system files a claim with the federal government who then reimburses the school based on usage of the program. When participation rates are low, those federal reimbursement dollars are left on the table.

Julie Pittman of No Kid Hungry discusses supports for schools looking to implement innovative school breakfast models. Analisa Sorrells/EducationNC

According to Julie Pittman, educator outreach manager with No Kid Hungry NC, North Carolina has added 26,000 new school breakfast eaters over the last year. She also mentioned new research from No Kid Hungry that shows offering breakfast as part of the school day reduces chronic absenteeism by an average of 6 percentage points.

The conference continued with sessions on the role of community partners, the summer food service program, afterschool meals, and more.

Mariah Morris, the 2019 North Carolina Teacher of the Year, discussed the importance of feeding all students.

“We believe in feeding our kids, period. Not for academic gains. Not because it makes them behave better. Not because it makes them arrive to school better but because when our children come to the table hungry at our schools, we believe it is our job to feed them,” said Morris.

Morris went on to describe the barriers that students in rural communities face, like those in her district of Moore County Schools. She highlighted things like food deserts, transportation barriers, and a lack of social services that prevent students from connecting with needed supports and opportunities.

“Rural counties are stuck in an intergenerational cycle of poverty that not only touches individual families but touches the whole infrastructure of the community. And so what do these students rely on to eat? Our schools,” said Morris. “That becomes the feeding mechanism for our students in the rural areas of North Carolina.”

Editor’s note: Nate Barilich is an Executive Fellow with EducationNC.

Analisa Sorrells

Analisa Sorrells is a Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School and previously worked as chief of staff and associate director of policy for EducationNC.