When Assistant Superintendent Olivia Zepeda took over the Nutrition Services department in Gadsden Elementary School District #32 she noticed something right away about her schools’ breakfast—students weren’t eating it.
“I saw lots—and lots, and LOTS—of students going out to the playground when they could be going to the cafeteria to eat,” said Olivia, who has been working in schools in some form or fashion, including teaching and administration, for the last 38 years. “Out of 800 students, maybe 150 were going in for breakfast and that worried me.”
As part of an overall mission to improve services for all students, Olivia sought to improve her breakfast numbers. As a former teacher and a former principal Olivia learned long ago that a missed morning meal is a missed opportunity for young learners.
Location, Location, Location
“I know kids who don’t eat breakfast get headaches and stomachaches; I also know that when you ask a kid if they ate breakfast, the answer is probably going to be ‘no’,” explained Olivia. Hunger becomes a distraction in the classroom, but how could Olivia distract kids from their socializing long enough to eat? The answer at Gadsden was a customizable breakfast-in-the-classroom program that allowed kids to be social while they ate. Michael Trend, Gadsden ISD’s Grants Director, said the Grab-N-Go model was clearly a terrific fit from the start.
“We were especially taken with this concept, since we felt students would want to grab a quick breakfast off carts, strategically located close to bus drop-off points or near playgrounds,” wrote Michael in response to our interview request. With a breakfast participation that hovered around 40 percent, and a student body focused on gathering outdoors rather than visiting the cafeteria, it seemed only logical to position the food where the students were already congregating.
Equipment, Big and Small
For Olivia and her breakfast program to be successful, funds were required. As part of the process of securing a grant through the Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom Olivia completed a detailed assessment of her program’s needs, which included equipment.
“The walk-in freezer is number one,” explained Olivia, noting that the district’s old storage was far too limited to accommodate the increased amount of food BIC would bring in. “Our current cold storage is really small, so that was very important. Also, reach-in freezers, and kiosks and coolers for outside, plus scanners and laptops for accurate counting.” Equipment budgeting isn’t all about big-ticket items, either, said Olivia. “We asked for a lot of trash cans because we had concerns about mess; it’s important to think these things through and find solutions.”
With a total enrollment of around 5400 students from pre-school to eighth grade, Gadsden will be serving breakfast-in-the-classroom in all nine of its schools: six elementary schools, two junior highs, and a pre-school. Zepeda says her schools run at around 80-85 percent free and reduced, which further underscored the need to increase access to and participation in school breakfast.
Working with stakeholders, Olivia addressed the concerns of teachers, principals, and custodians about potential pitfalls of the new program. “We are a district that prides itself on academic improvement, and our principals guard their instruction time like bulldogs!” said Olivia, who encountered common concerns from staff when she presented the idea of breakfast in the classroom. “Principals were worried about counting, about extra work for teachers; custodians worried about the mess, as did the principals. I took principals to Tucson to see the program at work, and they really loved the Grab-n-Go idea. We made decisions together, and everyone was happy.”
Michael Trend echoed Olivia’s words about the importance of teamwork among stakeholders, and the critical role it played in bringing everyone together to support BIC.
“We held many staff meetings among administrators, but we let each principal and assistant carry the message to faculty, to cafeteria staff, and to maintenance/custodial workers,” wrote Michael. In the early stages of planning, principals were able to take site visits to see Grab-n-Go in action, which helped convince them to take the idea back to their staffs. “The site visit actually changed the minds of the two principals who were the most skeptical,” wrote Michael. “Both of them became supporters of the Grab-n-Go concept.”
Breakfast for All in SY 2015-16
The current plan calls for breakfast to be served in all of Gadsden’s schools starting in August 2015. Olivia hopes to roll them out one at a time, staggering them every few days. “It’s too much to do them all at once, and this way we see problems we might encounter and make adjustments as we go—by the time we get to the last school we want it to be perfect!”
“I am excited that more children will have access to breakfast in the morning—that’s the most exciting thing for me,” said Olivia. “They won’t be hungry, they won’t have stomachaches or headaches, and they’ll be ready for class and ready for learning—what better reason is there for breakfast-in-the-classroom?”