Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom Chat, #NSBW16 Edition: Meredith Potter and Lauren Koff, Houston County Schools, Georgia

To close out National School Breakfast Week here at Beyond Breakfast, we sat down to chat with Meredith Potter, Director of School Nutrition, and Kauren Koff, Dietitian, from Houston County Schools in Georgia. Houston County was the recipient of a substantial grant from the Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom which, when paired with Community Eligibility Provision, allowed Potter and her staff to implement BIC in sixteen Houston County schools at the beginning of SY 2015-16. We wanted to know what it takes to roll out breakfast-in-the-classroom on such a large scale, and how that process was received by stakeholders.

Beyond Breakfast: Thank you for taking the time to chat with us Meredith, Lauren! Tell us a little bit about how you got started on your breakfast-in-the-classroom journey.

Meredith Potter, Director: Breakfast has always been important to us, but when we were able to have sixteen CEP schools in our district we knew that the emphasis on breakfast–and access to breakfast–would be a key component in implementing these CEP schools. Lauren, our dietitian, heard about the grant when we were at a Georgia SNA conference.

Lauren Koff, Dietitian: I sat in on a session about different kinds of breakfast programs, and from there learned about several organizations offering grants to support these kinds of programs. A couple of Google searches later I determined which grant I thought would be most appropriate for what we were doing, and that’s how we found [Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom].

BB: Can you tell us a little about the application and assessment process?

LK: I started looking through the application and ended up calling [PBIC consultant] Liz Campbell to ask her questions about the assessment process. I did each school separately—sixteen different assessments. The important thing is to be super thorough. We talked to our managers about everything [from labor] to equipment; we talked about what types of equipment, how many of [each], all the way down to considering whether the increased production would require ten new sheet pans to hold [meals]. You have to think about all the little, tiny details.

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BB: Did you roll out all sixteen schools at once, or one at a time? How did you make that decision?

MP: We wanted to roll out breakfast when we rolled out CEP. They just naturally complimented each other. We thought that if we had to make any adjustments, we can make those at the beginning of the school year, when we’re able to train the students and the staff at the same time.

BB: Tell us a little bit about how you approached your stakeholders.

MP: We met with the superintendent and the executive cabinet to explain what breakfast-in-the-classroom would look like, what the goals would need to be, and how we planned to meet those goals. Next, the superintendent met with the principals and we followed up his presentation, and then we had the principals on board about alternative breakfasts–the benefit to them was that the students would be able to eat at no cost. We actually meet quarterly with the principals who are involved in our breakfast initiatives; we talk about what’s working, what’s not, how we can work together to make it better. It’s kind of been a support group for everybody as we’ve gone on this journey. For us, implementing the alternative breakfast at the beginning of the school year seemed like the cleanest, most efficient way to do it.

BB: The success of a breakfast program often depends on strong support from the principal. How did you convince your principals to get on board?

MP: Every principal is different, but this group understood the importance and value to increasing access to healthy breakfast options for their children. One thing we did was try to leave some of the logistical decisions up to each school. All of our schools were built at different time periods and have different layouts; we met as a group with the principals, and then individually with principals at their schools, in order to talk through how they felt these initiatives could be best implemented in their schools, tailored to their kids. Once they had the buy-in to tailor the program at their schools—provided they were within our guidelines—it really became their individual project to help further the process and increase teacher and parent engagement.

The goal was to be able to educate and empower and encourage the principals to lead the effort in their building, so we did not have a tremendous amount of teacher contact—that was being handled by the building administrator. We knew going into this that we needed to be able to have a great partnership with our principals; they would be key in the successful implementation of this program, and there was no doubt that that was one of our top priorities.

BB: That’s a great segue for our next question—it sounds like you’re using different delivery models. Can you tell us about the types you are using?

LK: We are using a lot of models! With some of the grant money we were able to purchase carts for the hallways, so we do have carts, and the little plastic bags, so [students] can transport food from the cart to the classroom. Some schools still run [students] through a serving line in the lunchroom and then they can take [their meal] to the classroom either on a tray or in the bag, depending on the items. Some schools have breakfast up in the front office to catch late arrivals. It varies depending on the traffic of the school, where they hold children in the morning—the cafeteria or the gym or what have you—where the bus ramps are, where the car drop-off is, plus where the cafeteria is located in relation to those. [We are] basically trying to provide a convenient breakfast opportunity for kids right as they enter the door.

BB: And how was the student response to breakfast-in-the-classroom?

MP: I think [students] were excited. The majority of our schools in this program are elementary, so our lunchroom managers were kind of creative in the way that they decorated the carts, the way they presented the items in the hallways. Anything outside the norm for the kids peaks their interest. For our middle schools involved in BIC, some of them had some changes in procedures. They used to be able to go to the lunchroom if they wanted to eat, and go to the gym if they didn’t, so if their friends went to the gym they would decide not to eat. Offering breakfast in the gym, now those kids can eat and be with their friends, so it worked out great for the middle school.

BB: Can you tell us what your participation numbers were before and after implementing BIC?

LK: At the 16 CEP schools, at breakfast, we went from 49.5 percent to currently 84.5 percent. We saw lunch go up a little bit, too, but that was above 90 percent to begin with; we’re about 95 percent now.

BB: So what are some tips or best practices you can share with other school nutrition professionals who are considering implementing a breakfast-in-the-classroom program?

MP: Do your homework! We did our best to prepare for the impact of implementing sixteen schools at one time. We met with stakeholders, gave them all the information, followed up with them, and we were clear on what the plans were for each school. We ensured that everyone from the superintendent to the cashiers and line servers and paraprofessionals understood the procedures that would be happening in their specific schools. That was important so that when the kids came in, they were comfortable with the process they were expected to follow. Definitely involve all necessary stakeholders from the beginning.

Also, be flexible; that’s one thing we told each principal–that we’d go in on that first day of school with the best plan we could for that school, but as the day and week evolved we made tiny shifts within each school to make the processes better. So even though we had a well-thought-out Plan A, we were ready for a Plan B.

We do send the principals at each school their breakfast and lunch participation at the end of each month, and it is ranked highest to lowest. That has been a very helpful factual tool that I think motivated a lot of schools. You always want to be at the top when compared to your peers and coworkers. I think that report does that, without our having to say too much.

houston2BB: So what do you have planned for National School Breakfast Week?

MP: We love National School Breakfast Week in Houston County! Our managers are responsible for the promotions at each of their schools, so we will have lots of different activities going on, and we certainly use the materials passed down to us from SNA for breakfast week.

LK: We’ll be promoting [our schools’] activities during the week, and they give us feedback on it. They get ownership of what they do, and they are really proud of it. I think we’ll see a lot of crazy costumes and décor and everything else!

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