Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom Chat: Timothy Ely, Food Service Director, Saddle Mountain Unified School District #90, Arizona

Although some school nutrition directors have a tough time selling the idea of breakfast in the classroom to principals, Tim Ely of Saddle Mountain Unified School District #90 in Arizona says it was the principal who pitched the idea to him.

“I got lucky,” said Tim, by phone from Arizona. “The superintendent and principal were on board first, and already very positive about it. I didn’t have to sell anything—it was already sold! I went along for the ride and helped make it happen.”

Ely has only been in school foodservice for two years; he started his career in hotel banquet management, and then transitioned into healthcare foodservice. After moving to Arizona from Pennsylvania, Tim wanted a foodservice job with more family-friendly hours.

“I’ve been in my current position for a year and a half,” said Tim. “The banquet business in hotels is time-consuming, and the hours are bad—holidays, evenings, weekends. Then I went into healthcare foodservice—assisted living and nursing homes—which worked out well, and the schedules were a lot better. Working with kids is great; it’s not a corporate environment like I was used to, it’s a learning environment, and the hours are manageable for family life. There is no other place in foodservice where you’re going to be done with work at three or four in the afternoon!”

So how was a foodservice director with just two years on the job convinced to implement universal breakfast-in-the-classroom (from scratch!) at a K-8 building with an enrollment of over four hundred students? Tim credits his first district job with showing him that breakfast is “pretty do-able” if you understand all of the moving parts.

“In [Phoenix] I had seven schools, four of them running BIC—I walked in, they were already doing it, so [serving breakfast] made sense to me,” explained Tim. “When my new superintendent came to me and said, ‘How about this, think we can do it?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I know how it’s supposed to work.’ It really helped me out to see it at another job, and it was easier to get this program up and running because I knew what we were supposed to do.”

Today, students at Tartesso Elementary are eating breakfast free of charge each morning, and participation has seen marked improvement since the program was implemented on August 8, 2015.

“Our enrollment is around 423, and we’re getting about 300 [students],” said Ely. “Last year we were doing maybe 150 at breakfast, and this year we’re right around 300 every day. We struggle a little bit with the older kids, but the younger kids do really well.”

Utilizing his Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom grant, Tim purchased the equipment he would need to serve BIC.

“We were able to get really large, four-tiered carts,” explained Tim. “It’s a two-story school, so one cart stays on the first floor and the other goes in the elevator upstairs; bags are placed outside the classroom about ten minutes before students get in the building, and teachers take them into the classroom.”

It’s up to teachers to determine how they run BIC from there, with some opting for pre-setting breakfast on students’ desks, while others choose to have students line up and select their breakfast from the delivery bags. A roster is delivered to each classroom, and teachers check off students as they take a full meal; rosters are sent back to the SN staff, who enter the numbers into the NutriKids system. Ely has created a two-week menu cycle with eight to ten menu items—like waffles and pancakes—in rotation. They stick with items that are popular with teachers and custodians (as well as students), and that are also easy to store, prepare, and serve.

“Milk and juice go out in cold bags, but we haven’t done cereal where you pour in the milk,” said Tim. “We try to make it simple, avoid messes, and stay on the teachers’ good side! We have some kinks worked out, so it might be time to try another food item.”

With BIC in place at Tartesso, Tim turned his attention to implementing another alternative breakfast delivery at a second school. Without funds for equipment, and given the specific logistic challenges at the school (a campus with multiple buildings requiring outdoor transport of food), Ely decided that a grab-n-go style breakfast was his best bet.

“It was easier to do grab-n-go at this location, because once you start taking bags outside and moving them across sidewalks, it gets more complicated. I found a salad bar and reused that for the milk, we had a register and register cart, so all I needed was brown paper bags.”

While his participation is not as high with grab-n-go, Ely says it was a simple start-up process. The key to breakfast-in-the-classroom success, says Tim, is to let your building’s needs dictate the method of delivery.

“Without the grant we never would have been able to do breakfast-in-the-classroom, because we needed expensive equipment. [On the other hand] I started grab-n-go with no money, and [it] was a lot easier to get started versus breakfast-in-the-classroom—it was easier to put together, but we’re still missing a lot of people. I think it depends on the set-up of your building, and if you can get grant money that helps. If you don’t have a shot at grant money, I’d try to sell [a school] on grab-and-go—your numbers might not get as high, but you’re still going to reach a lot of kids without spending $80 on an insulated bag.”

Today, Ely’s breakfast-in-the-classroom and grab-n-go programs are reaching far more students than Saddle Mountain’s previous, traditional cafeteria service.

“Breakfast-in-the-classroom has become part of the school day,” said Tim. “In a short time, just two or three weeks, it becomes part of the kids’ routine, part of the teachers’ routine, and it’s not a big deal anymore. But when you start multiplying things, you see the increase in breakfasts served, you really see the impact, and the impact—that’s huge.”

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