Breakfast in the Classroom: Celebrating Success and Looking Forward

Is eating a healthy breakfast important for learning? More than 100 education, food-service, and anti-hunger stakeholders attending a recent Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom (PBIC) summit think so. And they know that partnerships and stakeholder engagement are crucial to ensuring that every child who needs breakfast gets it.

The summit — held April 11, 2019, in Arlington, Virginia — offered a look back at the success of PBIC and other initiatives in expanding school breakfast participation around the country, particularly through Breakfast in the Classroom (BIC). But the summit was not only an opportunity to reflect on past achievements: participants also worked together to look forward, thinking about ways to expand BIC to reach even more districts and students.

Since our formation in 2010, through generous support from the Walmart Foundation, PBIC has provided more than $12 million in grants to support the expansion of BIC in more than 70 school districts and 26 states across the nation, making breakfast accessible to 130,000 students who were not previously participating in the program. While many factors have contributed to this expansion of BIC, at the forefront is PBIC’s commitment to partnerships that bring multiple stakeholders together early and throughout the process.

Successful partnerships start with strong relationships. “Whatever door I couldn’t open, they opened for me,” said Sonja Powell of Ohio’s Children’s Hunger Alliance as she described how her organization’s work to provide nutritious meals to atrisk children was supported by strong relationships between the Children’s Hunger Alliance, the Ohio Education Association, and the School Nutrition Association (SNA) of Ohio. And, those relationships go all the way down to the building level too. Reflecting on the importance of building-level partnerships, Stacey Bettis of SNA of Ohio noted that everyone in the school is important to successful breakfast programs “from the beginning of the day to the end of the day.” The cooperation among these partners helped facilitate getting PBIC grants into Ohio districts more easily.

Ohio’s Logan-Hocking School District was one such location that benefited from these relationships. Brenda Lemon, president of the Logan Education Association and a library media specialist in the district, described how these partnerships helped get Logan-Hocking’s program off the ground and then kept it going. When faced with opposition to the BIC program, Brenda would say, “Don’t tell me it won’t work. Tell me what you need to make it work.” Then she would coordinate with her partners to do just that — make it work.

But BIC programs do more than put food in children’s stomachs. These programs also have powerful potential to help improve the social-emotional climate of a school. Brandon Stratford of Child Trends shared research on how BIC can create a more nurturing start to the school day, often through casual, relationship-building conversations between students and teachers who gather in the morning before formal instruction starts. He described how one school uses BIC to create opportunities for students to demonstrate responsibility and independence through BIC “jobs.” In this school, students apply for the job of helping with breakfast delivery, submitting an application and going through an interview with the school’s principal. Another example was given by Billie Hunter, a cafeteria manager in Louisiana’s Livingston Parish Public Schools, who described how her school’s BIC program brought the food-service staff out from behind the counter to distribute breakfast from rolling carts in the school’s hallways. This allowed food-service workers to form new relationships with the students. “We’re now part of the school,” Hunter said. “We’re not only lunch ladies. We’re part of them.”

With breakfast being brought directly into the classroom and all students eating, BIC reduces the stigma that children may experience when they see themselves as being singled out as being poor. In a moving and powerful panel moderated by Cathy Koehler, president of the Arkansas Education Association, several educators shared their stories about growing up poor, participating in federal meal programs as children, and now advocating for increased access to school meals for all children in their communities. Reflecting on her own childhood, Virginia Miller, a teacher at William Paca Elementary School in Prince George’s County, Maryland, said, “Poverty and hunger in my mind is not just an isolated thing — it is an isolation issue.”

We wrapped up the summit with participants working in small groups to brainstorm answers to the overarching question: what is needed to achieve full participation by all students in school meal programs, especially school breakfast? While participants came up with many answers, a common theme was the importance of continuing to build partnerships and stakeholder engagement. Representatives from each PBIC organization and from AASA, the School Superintendents Association — another strong advocate for expanding school breakfast — then closed out the day with reflections from their own organizations’ perspectives.

Almost 10 years of working together has brought about amazing changes, but all agreed that there is still so much need out there. Working together, we look forward to strengthening Breakfast in the Classroom in the years ahead.

This post was written & provided by The NEA Foundation.

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