Every day, I strive to create a positive, welcoming and equitable learning environment where my students can be themselves, access instruction in meaningful ways and engage in social emotional and academic learning. After nine years, I now realize I overlooked one crucial need: access to school breakfast.
As a teacher I know how important it is for students to feel safe, secure and nourished. Yet, until recently I had never considered the amazing resource of school breakfast.
We can thank the Black Panther Party for pioneering free school breakfast programs. Many people only know of the Black Panthers as a revolutionary group with a political agenda. However, in January 1969, they began serving food before school at an Episcopal church in Oakland, California.
Within weeks, they went from feeding a handful of kids to hundreds. Breakfast included milk, eggs, meat, cereal and fruit. Volunteers and members asked local merchants for healthy food donations and the program quickly grew in popularity.
Perhaps most striking were the reports from the schools. School officials immediately reported a positive difference in the students who received free breakfast before school; they cried less, they were no longer falling asleep in class and they didn’t have stomach cramps. They were doing better!
The benefits of school breakfast have long been made very clear. Students who eat breakfast at school enjoy higher grades and test scores, fewer absences and illnesses and greater school success. Those findings aren’t surprising given our belief as educators in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. We must ensure our students have their physical needs met before asking them to do the higher-order thinking of learning.
Historically free and reduced-price school meals have only been available to children from low-income families. But given the barriers to breakfast faced by kids from all economic backgrounds, in today’s world free breakfast for everyone makes a great deal of sense.
Students who arrive to school late because of delayed buses or long car lines may not have the time for breakfast, and students who eat before an hourlong bus ride may arrive still hungry. Many students from busy, working families may not have time to get breakfast at home. Finally, many middle and high school students would rather spend time with teachers or friends at the beginning of the day than get breakfast.
It’s Time to Bring School Breakfast into the 21st Century
Breakfast served in the cafeteria before the start of the school day reaches an average of only 25 percent of students who are eligible. The old-school system of having only eligible students eat in the cafeteria before school starts creates stigma and separates students from their peers. More innovative delivery methods such as Grab ‘n’ Go carts enable kids to take meals right to the classroom, which can boost participation rates to levels between 60 and 90 percent.
No Kid Hungry and The NEA Foundation are currently working with educators, school nutrition professionals and other organizations to make the case for more equitable and innovative breakfast delivery systems to maximize participation and increase student success.
Last year, as a fellow with NNSTOY and No Kid Hungry, I secured a grant allowing over 100 more students at Mt. Pleasant Elementary School in Wilmington, Delaware, to get breakfast from a Grab ’N’ Go cart if they wished and eat it in the classroom. This year, I continue the work as a mentor with the NEA Foundation and No Kid Hungry School Breakfast Fellowship Program.
Kids Who Eat Together Build Community
Joining the “Breakfast After the Bell” program has changed the way my classroom looks and feels in the morning. Students who begin each day eating breakfast together create a calm, family-like community atmosphere in the classroom, and it helps them better navigate their day. Kids who eat together build a community, and no one is singled out as a “poor kid.”
I make sure I create this space for my students to start their day on positive terms, their terms, as they prepare for a day of learning. Nine years in the classroom has taught me that no two students are alike and that everyone needs something different to start their day in a productive way. Some need a hug, some an academic challenge, some a conversation, some need some space and many need breakfast!
Part of social-emotional learning is identifying your emotions and knowing how to respond to and manage them. Recognizing triggers like hunger and working to make sure you have a full stomach and are ready to learn is a skill we can help to develop in all of our students. Students learn personal responsibility when they clean up after themselves and make sure we are following school procedures for breakfast. It’s a win-win on every level.
For National School Breakfast Week, Take Action for Your Students
National School Breakfast week is March 4-8. Take a look at your school. Where, when and how are kids eating breakfast? What do your classroom communities look and feel like? Are there barriers to equitable and positive school breakfast experiences for your students? Are the systems in place for breakfast best serving the needs of students or are they the easiest solutions for adults? Can you commit to being an agent of change for your students to ensure they have an equitable start to the day?
You can make sure your kids start the day with a breakfast by taking a look at your school’s program and working for equitable change. The NEA Foundation’s School Breakfast Toolkit is a great place to start. You can build a positive classroom culture and community and advocate for equitable school breakfast practices today! The NEA Foundation and No Kid Hungry are leading with this work. To find out how you can take part, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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