Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom Chat: Craig Hodge, CNP Director, Clarke County School District, Alabama

Before Craig Hodge became CNP Director for Clarke County School District, he worked for over a decade as a state auditor of child nutrition programs in Alabama. It was through his travels to school districts far and wide that Hodge first came into contact with breakfast-in-the-classroom programs. That exposure convinced him that the program was important for children, and that a direct-to-classroom delivery model could be a good fit for Clarke County.

“I had seen different models of breakfast-in-the-classroom in different areas of the state, and how it worked for them,” recalled Hodge. “To my mind the in-class delivery model is the simplest way to go, making the process as easy as possible for cafeteria staff, and the teachers.”

Alphabet Soup: CEP + BIC

In order to make breakfast-in-the-classroom a reality, Hodge wanted to get his schools enrolled in the Community Eligibility Provision. Not only would CEP status streamline paperwork demands, it would make the program more affordable for the district up-front.

“Right before I left my job with the state I attended a USDA meeting in Atlanta on CEP and I thought it was a pretty neat program,” said Hodge. “I wanted to make sure we were doing CEP before we got into breakfast-in-the-classroom because I knew if we were CEP we could afford it, and offering universal breakfast without CEP would be harder.”

When Alabama came back with Clarke County’s official free/reduced rate—88 percent—Hodge knew that the combination of CEP and BIC would be do-able for Clarke County’s child nutrition program.

“CEP opened up a lot more options for us in terms of breakfast-in-the-classroom,” said Hodge. “In some places the combination of CEP and BIC helped us go from 20 or 30 percent participation to 80 or 80 percent—that’s just a huge, huge difference. One of my schools was even serving more breakfasts than lunch for a while—that figure may have dropped after the newness of the program wore off, but it’s still pretty impressive.”

Partnering with the Partners: From Application to Implementation

“I found the grant by accident!” laughed Hodge. “I get a lot of calls from other directors who know me through my state auditing job, and one of them forwarded me an email about a meeting the very next day. [SNF Program Manager] Sarah Murphy and [PBIC consultant] Liz Campbell were there. There were 35 or 40 of us in the room, and the thing that kind of stood out was that it was also about CEP, and CEP was brand-new at the time for us and for most of the nation.”

Upon returning to Clarke County and moving ahead with CEP, Hodge circled back with Campbell and Murphy, and moved forward with the application process. After filling out the paperwork for six schools, Craig found yet another willing principal who was interested in bringing BIC to his school.

“One of our middle school principals ended up transferring to the high school where we weren’t doing BIC,” said Hodge. “His position was, ’We’re making all of these changes, let’s just go ahead and do breakfast-in-the-classroom.’ His goal was to change the social dynamic in the mornings. Students gathering in large groups, arguments starting—he wanted breakfast-in-the-classroom for the discipline factor. And it’s worked.”

Stakeholder Engagement: Lessons Learned

Implementing breakfast-in-the-classroom requires buy-in from all stakeholders, from the superintendent to the students themselves. Although Hodge says he now enjoys wide support from all stakeholder groups, one lesson he learned was to engage all stakeholder groups earlier—something he wishes he had done in hindsight.

“Breakfast-in-the-classroom did come from the top, down,” acknowledged Hodge. “The superintendent wanted it, I had a principal that wanted it, and then once we had a meeting with all of the principals they agreed to it because it would help support teachers’ jobs. [The CN department] has been able to help support the general fund, which in turn saves teachers’ jobs. That was a selling point for us with administrators.”

Teachers like the program, but found challenges in distributing reimbursable meals, prompting Hodge to move to an offer-versus-serve format which has proven very popular. Not only does OVS reduce waste, it’s also been a more streamlined process for the teachers, who are in charge with making sure all students receive a fully reimbursable school breakfast.

“The kids weren’t drinking the milk like they were supposed to, and the teachers weren’t successful in encouraging them to take it, so I said let’s just try OVS,” said Hodge. “I found a nice infographic of OVS that another school district had done with pictures. I took it, adapted it, and gave that to the teachers as instructional material and they picked right up on it.”

On the Menu in Clarke County

One of the keys to success for school breakfast—or school lunch, for that matter—is adapting to student preferences. Knowing that kids in Clarke County are different from kids in Birmingham, or Mississippi, or New York, Hodge set out to create a menu that would appeal to as many students as possible.

“In my years as an auditor I was able to see how kids react to foods differently,” said Hodge. “We typically do a breakfast pizza every Tuesday that the students love; they also love our biscuit sandwiches. You really have to be aware of expense, and pizza is actually one of our more affordable meals which is great.”

Hodge and his staff have also found a way to offer fresh fruit to students in the morning, at a cost lower than that of canned fruit.

“We found it was easier for the teachers and the custodial staff, and it actually costs less,” said Hodge. “One of the things we did to make fresh fruit more affordable was a bidding process. Fruit is volatile—prices will change month to month depending on what’s available. We chose a day and asked produce companies to submit a bid for the items on our list; the companies would look at market price that day and offer us a bid, which is essentially market value plus markup. We ended up paying a lot less than when we were doing monthly or weekly quotes from suppliers; we saved about two dollars a case, which is huge.”

Staple fruits like bananas, apples, pears, and oranges top Clarke County’s produce list, though other, “rarer” fruits like grapes also make an appearance when the prices are cost-effective.

Breakfast in the Classroom: The Bottom Line

It turns out breakfast-in-the-classroom has been just as good for the school district as it has for the students. The combination of the grant and CEP allowed for increased revenue—something every school nutrition program would welcome.

“At the end of September of [SY 2015-16] we were down to about a one month operating budget, after paying for a new cafeteria,” said Hodge. “But thanks to the combination of CEP and breakfast we have about three months. We would need to recover a little bit more before going out and buying a major piece of equipment, but I’m pleased. And my bookkeeper—she’s my naysayer, my realist—she’s really pleased. Overall I’m very happy with BIC, and we’re going to continue to see where it goes. I think it would be hard to go back after the increased revenue we’ve seen.”

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