A new school year has started and that for principals, teachers and parents includes thinking about the importance of children eating breakfast. According to research, eating breakfast definitely links to higher student achievement.
Writing this column certainly brought back memories of growing up below poor (if there’s such a thing) in rural Tennessee. The memories remain as vivid today as if it all happened yesterday. Breakfast consisted of oatmeal or rice with sugar and butter every morning. Nevertheless, we still ate something before we headed off to school. On Sundays, our mother made hot biscuits and gravy. I never cared for biscuits and gravy and still don’t.
Today, many children still leave home for school without eating breakfast. Years ago, based on similar research, federally funded free or reduced breakfast and lunch programs (though not in my time) came to many schools around the country. Still I read recently that the school breakfast program only reaches about 18 percent of the children though 54 percent of California schoolchildren qualify for free or reduced food.
An extensive article about breakfast and learning recently ran in California Schools magazine. It covered a program called Breakfast after the Bell at Wilkerson Elementary School in El Monte. Wilkerson is among a growing number of schools that serve breakfast during the first 10 minutes of the regular school day. After the school day officially opens, time is set aside for children to eat breakfast.
With heavy schedules already, one obstacle meant winning over the teachers, classified staff and custodians, but the staff became more and more supportive as student engagement, achievement and lack of distracting interruptions, the report said. That picking up the breakfast carts from outside the classroom doors turned out easier than cleaning up the cafeteria came as a surprise.
Since there is only 10 minutes for the breakfast program, everything must run like clockwork. Sixth-graders arrive early, pick up breakfast carts from the cafeteria, and deliver the food directly to the classrooms. Teachers devised efficient procedures for passing out the food and cleanup. You might wonder what kinds of breakfast foods are served? The school boasts mango fruit, kiwis and Mexican sweet breads, as well as other things. Food surveys give children a voice in food satisfaction.
Breakfast after the Bell is a good option, researchers say, for districts with large numbers of children who are eligible for free and reduced meals. So important is the impact of children eating breakfast that it would be feasible to offer breakfast after the bell to all children even if they do not qualify for free or reduced meals, some say. Others maintain that eating a healthy breakfast has such an impact on learning that time out for breakfast should count as instructional time.
According to the Breakfast after the Bell report, schools that have implemented the program report higher test scores, less discipline problems, less tardiness and higher average daily attendance. Districts also receive more money, as districts receive federal reimbursements for every breakfast they serve.
The report went on to say that innovative school districts with alternative breakfast programs amassed amazing results on the teaching and learning at these schools. What about the traditional school breakfast program? The report maintained that there wasn’t enough participation in the traditional breakfast program.
In conclusion, Breakfast after the Bell research reported that a healthy breakfast links to higher student achievement in the following ways:
Unfortunately, children who do not attend schools with a breakfast program would not have the same access to this “nutrition learning boost.” Researchers also report that healthy breakfast eating habits decrease with age. Ninety-two percent of children ages 6 to 11 eat breakfast while only 77 percent of students from ages 12 to 19 eat breakfast.
Mayrene Bates is a trustee on the Solano County Board of Education. Reach her at [email protected]