Before the holiday break we had the opportunity to sit down and talk to Alexsis Caston, Coordinator of Nutrition Services, Memphis City Schools in Memphis, Tennessee. Memphis was one of five cities in the original Breakfast-in-the-Classroom pilot program, generously funded by the Walmart Foundation. In the first year of their breakfast-in-the-classroom program Memphis saw great success, and they are poised to expand their program in 2012. Alexsis spoke to us about many of the issues surrounding breakfast-in the-classroom, including working with principals and administrators, coalition building, infrastructure and equipment procurement, funding, and the expected—and unexpected—benefits of breakfast on students’ quality of life.
Below is our Q & A session with Alexsis—many thanks to her for taking the time to answer our questions, and best of luck with the upcoming expansion. We hope you’ll keep us posted on the progress your breakfast-in-the-classroom program makes this year!
Beyond Breakfast: What has been going on in Memphis schools since you first received the Walmart grant, and what’s next for your breakfast-in-the-classroom program?
Alexsis Caston: Prior to receiving the Walmart Foundation grant for breakfast-in-the-classroom we had breakfast-in-the-classroom at three or four schools but nothing on the scale that we were able to do through the grant. The only time we did any large programs for breakfast served in the classroom was if there was some kind of renovation at a school, or if the kids had to eat in the classroom out of necessity. The first thing we had to do was start changing our own mindset, and to look at breakfast in the classroom as a viable means of getting food to the kids, instead of thinking, “Oh something is wrong in the cafeteria and we have to have breakfast in the classroom.” In the beginning we had to work with ourselves first, with changing our own mindset before we even started reaching out to principals, parents, students, and the superintendent.
BB: When you took the idea of breakfast-in-the-classroom to principals and administrators, how was the idea received?
AC: At first there was a lot of apprehension. The first thing you think about is, “Are kids going to have spilled milk all over the place? Are the classrooms going to be dirty? Is there going to be extra work for the teachers? Will it take away from instructional time?” Those were valid concerns, especially for people who had never seen this program work. Our superintendent is huge supporter of breakfast-in-the-classroom, and the teachers’ union in our city is also a huge supporter; once we were able to get them talking for us, we were able to break down barriers with the principals and with the teachers. One of the things we did was to encourage teachers to call their principals and do sort of ‘peer counseling’ and visit the schools [with BIC] when they had an opportunity, to see how things were working—that really helped.
BB: Are you using the same model at every school or have you customized it for each school?
AC: We allow the principals and teachers to have input, and also the cafeteria staff, on exactly how they want to roll out their breakfast-in-the-classroom program. In some schools the meals are delivered to the class, and at others the older kids come to the cafeteria and pick up their breakfast individually and then take it to the classroom. We have a couple of schools that only want to try it in the younger grades first—kindergarten, first grade—so younger students eat in the classroom while older students eat in the cafeteria; what we’ve found with that is that eventually the principals end up wanting everyone to eat in the classrooms. We let principals take the lead and tell us what would work best for their school. We give them leeway so they can have ownership of the whole process, and that works out a lot better.
BB: What did the Walmart Foundation grant help fund?
AC: We were able to get reimbursed for all of the equipment that we purchased: insulated bags, refrigerators for the extra milk we needed, and staff time in the beginning. It took us a couple of extra hours in the beginning because we were trying to figure out what to do, so the grant helped reimburse us for all those costs. Staffing is probably one of the major costs that we had, since it occurs over time, as opposed to equipment which is a one-time cost. We also have fliers that we use for marketing, and we also had special placemats made for the kids–the cost of printing, which can get really expensive, was covered by the grant. The placemat is in color and laminated and has fun little games like crossword puzzles on it, so the kids can doodle on it while they eat breakfast and then wipe it off and use it again the next day.
BB: Tell us about the general response from stakeholders once everything was up and running.
AC: Once it was up and running it was like, “Oh this is so easy! I can’t believe we weren’t doing this before.” It’s kind of hard to wrap your mind around 900 kids eating breakfast in the classroom unless you’ve seen it, so once we were able to get it done it was just amazing the way they embraced it.
BB: Can you tell me how breakfast-in-the-classroom is addressing hunger?
AC: Even though breakfast is free to our students a lot of our kids were not able to eat breakfast because they were late for class, or they didn’t want to stand in line, or for whatever reason they didn’t eat breakfast in the cafeteria. Kids were definitely going to class hungry. One of the teachers mentioned that she would keep granola bars in her classroom (using her own pocket money) that she would give to her students when they came in, but she said now [with BIC] she doesn’t have to do that anymore. Some people really don’t realize how hungry kids are in the morning. People assume that all parents feed their children before they leave home, but for so many families that’s just not the case. I was at a school where even the financial secretary had a drawer of snacks because the kids would come into the office, and even though she wasn’t the person they went to, she was observing this [hunger issue] and she would keep snacks in her drawer, and give them to the kids. A lot of times kids are acting out because they are hungry. A lot of times kids don’t know that they are acting out because they are hungry, they just know they are uncomfortable. One of the things that we do [with BIC] is cover the cost of the teachers’ breakfast so that they can eat with their students and model that behavior. There was another school that I went into for breakfast-in-the-classroom and they would do work, like reading a Time magazine—and these are third graders—while they had breakfast. The kids think they’re just having a good time, but they are reading something educational that is helping them be aware of what’s going on in the world.
Part Two of our interview with Alexsis will be posted next week–stay tuned!