In-Classroom Breakfast Spotlight: Willie Gentry, Peoria, AZ

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Pre-packing non-perishables, daily milk delivery, and centralized pickup helped the program overcome early obstacles.

Recently I sat down for a chat with Willie Gentry, Director of Food and Nutrition Services for the Peoria Unified School District. After successfully developing and implementing an in-classroom breakfast program at Alta Loma Elementary School, Willie’s district will be expanding the program into two more schools: Ira A. Murphy Elementary and Sun Valley Elementary. I asked Willie to offer insight into the funding, infrastructure, challenges and successes of feeding kids in the morning.

Willie Gentry has been with the PUSD for 21 years and was recently awarded a “Having a Dream” award by the Northwest Black History Committee. The award is presented to citizens who demonstrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s values in empowering others. Gentry was recognized for her efforts to promote nutritional wellness among students and for her work promoting cultural awareness. Her favorite school meal? Sloppy Joes!

Where did the in-classroom breakfast idea start?

Three years ago I sent my cafeteria manager at Alta Loma–Helen Savage–to a national conference where she attended an Expanding Breakfast session. She came back all jazzed about how she could do it. I had also been working with the National Dairy Council/NFL “Fuel Up to Play 60” program and thought this was a way to bridge the two and get some funding. We used some start up monies from Fuel Up to Play 60 to buy some equipment and initial supplies.

How does in-classroom breakfast work in your program?

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Student helpers unpack the morning meal.

The process starts the day before with non-perishables being pre-packed for the next day’s breakfast. On the “day of” milk, juice and hot items are packed. Everything goes into insulated carrying containers which are then loaded onto wire shelving carts and then pushed out into central locations where teachers and/or student helpers (usually 2-4 students) pick up the bags and bring everything to the classroom.

When the food reaches the classroom teachers, record student meals using a checklist and later the manager enters the information into our Point-of-Sale (POS) system. Students are charged according to eligibility (paid, free or reduced).

Describe some of your challenges and successes.

The program has been well-received. Early problems included addressing concerns about additional work from the custodial staff and teacher concerns that that in-classroom breakfast would take away from instructional time. We tried to meet with all the stakeholders on campus to work through concerns. After implementation, the reaction is really great; teachers find it benefits them and the students because the students are ready to learn. The kids aren’t hungry, they come to school and they aren’t tardy, and when classroom time starts they are ready to learn with fewer discipline problems.

The biggest storage challenge we faced was with the milk but we worked with the dairy company to provide daily delivery. We worked with a vendor supplier of other products to look for shelf-stable items; most of our sites have dry storage that can accommodate the volume so that’s not our biggest challenge. The biggest challenge is definitely refrigeration and dealing with items that come in frozen that need to be thawed. We tried to work through these initial concerns in the pilot program. We also had to work out with kids and teachers knowing what “complete breakfasts” mean to meet federal guidelines so we went to pre-packaging; that way all the kids have to do is pick up the package and their beverage.

What is your participation rate for the in-classroom breakfast program?

When the program was implemented last spring, the benefits showed almost immediately. Participation rose over 50% and has remained at that level. We’re really excited!

Final thoughts:

Us lunch ladies are very passionate about what we do; it’s mothers providing meals to kids. We feel passionate about the fact that we’re feeding kids. The meals that we provide are good and healthy. I feel good about that. One of the most rewarding things I can remember is one of the cafeteria managers shared that her kid ate school lunch and when he went off to college and started cooking for himself, he recalled his school lunch had all the meal components and used that when making his own meals.

Everyone has their favorite school meal that they remember from lunch. I remember when everything was made from scratch and I could smell bread baking. All those things you remember about school lunch – those are positive things. Negative press has made us tougher, and made us realize we need to try harder. We want to make sure the meals are healthy and if it means we have to make changes that’s okay. Change is a slow process but it’s not a negative, it’s an opportunity to improve what you’re doing; we’re always trying to be ahead of the curve. I’m aware of what we need to do to provide a healthy meal to the kids. As trends come and go, one of the things that I know is this is a very important program for kids to be ready to learn. We have to make sure kids have access to healthy food.

The following statement was sent to us by Kristin Pasinski, principal at Alta Loma Elementary where the first BIC program in the Peoria district was implemented:

Breakfast in The Classroom at Alta Loma has assisted with not only getting students to school on time (it has decreased our tardy rate) but it has helped to ensure students are eating a healthy breakfast, and are ready/focused to learn. Our breakfast numbers increased since we started this program. A teacher states, “Breakfast during homeroom time starts our day in a very positive way!  Kids hurry in and select their breakfast before they even take off their backpacks!  It’s also an exercise in teamwork as students assist in our breakfast procedures.” Some teachers report that before students even take off their backpacks they are picking up and opening their breakfast. Parents have reported that it helps save time in the morning and they don’t feel as rushed because they know that their kids will be fed at school. We really love what the program does for our students, school and community!

Photos courtesy of Willie Gentry.

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