NSBW 2015 School Breakfast Q&A: Heather Wellings, Nutrition Specialist, Hillsborough County Public Schools, Florida

Wrapping up an exciting week of National School Breakfast Week coverage, we bring you today’s question-and-answer session with Heather Wellings from Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, Florida. Back in February we ran across HCPS’s Student Nutrition Service Facebook page and fell in love with their photos; we reached out, and Heather was kind enough to agree to sit down and answer our questions about how school breakfast is served in her district. Wellings (MS, RD, SNS) is the Nutrition Specialist for Student Nutrition Services in Hillsborough County Public Schools.

Beyond Breakfast: Heather, thanks for taking the time to chat with us. Tell us a little about school breakfast in your school district.

Heather Wellings: We started it in 2001. We didn’t do a pilot; my director went ahead and implemented in every school. Breakfast participation was really low—in the 10 to 20 percent range—and we wanted to offer free breakfast to make sure every child got a healthy start to their morning. We serve breakfast in 215 schools—every school in the district.

A beautiful breakfast display in Hillsborough County Public Schools.

A beautiful breakfast display in Hillsborough County Public Schools.

BB: What does your delivery look like for school breakfast? Are you serving traditional, cafeteria-style breakfast, or breakfast-in-the-classroom, or both?

HW: The majority of our kids eat in the cafeteria. We’re starting to get breakfast-in-the-classroom going; we have about six sites doing a complete BIC program. We would like to do it in more schools, and we’re working with principals and teachers to get that going.

BB: What are your breakfast menus like?

HW: We follow two different breakfast menus—an elementary, and a middle/high school menu. We do a one week cycle menu, and every day we have a breakfast sandwich. Sometimes it’s chicken with a whole-grain croissant, or ham-egg-and-cheese or sausage-and-cheese on a whole-grain breakfast bread or croissant. We always have a hot item—we’ve done chicken and waffles, and we have a Southern-style breakfast with scrambled eggs, toast, and grits. We’re from the South, so—definitely grits! We always have grab-n-go type items—cereal, yogurt, parfaits, and peanut butter bars.

BB: If kids are “grabbing-and-going” where are they going?

HW: The typical high school and middle school student is going to their classroom, but they can sit and eat in the cafeteria as well.

BB: Turning back to your breakfast-in-the-classroom program—what more can you tell us about that?

HW: We do a different menu cycle for BIC. They also follow a one-week menu cycle, but with two options. We always offer something hot, which is typically a sandwich because it can be wrapped and eaten on-the-go. We try to avoid cereal in the classroom, because it can be messy.

We started breakfast-in-the-classroom at one school last year where we had issues with attendance and getting kids to the classroom on time. It was turning into more of a social hour, and we were experiencing a lot of tardiness. It’s also a high free/reduced site, and that principal—who is amazing, very supportive—really felt that it was important for those kids to get a nutritious meal before heading into the classroom to learn.

BB: We often hear program managers and directors say how important it is to have principal support for a school breakfast program, especially a BIC program—that was the case for you here?

HW: Absolutely, in fact [BIC] was partially his idea, because he really wanted to eliminate that social hour in the hallways and get kids into their classrooms and ready to learn. He was totally on board, and it was a great place to do our pilot. We’re replicating that process at other sites.

BB: How about other stakeholders? How do they respond to the suggestion to move breakfast into the classroom?

HW: As we add school sites, we’re always working with stakeholders to build support. The teachers were also really good. Look, you can always expect a little resistance [from stakeholders] but our teachers understood that our goal is to get the kids fed and ready to learn. Having breakfast in the classroom was a little bit of extra work up front, but we tried to mitigate that as best as possible.

For example, when we first started we were using rosters, but now the kids to through a line so the teachers don’t have to keep a roster. At one school site, we have six locations, and each student knows where they go based on grade level; everyone reports to their respective quad area, get their breakfast, and go to class. Other than making sure the kids clean up after themselves, there isn’t much work left for the teachers—especially without those rosters.

BB: How are older students responding to school breakfast? The older the students are, the harder sell breakfast seems to be.

HW: In our high schools we are trying to do a Second Chance breakfast—we’re doing that at four or five high schools, and that’s been a huge success. We’ve had a 10-15 percent increase in participation. We offer them one choice between homeroom and first period, a short time frame to come through [and eat]. It’s been a great program.

Breakfast is a hard sell, especially that early in the morning. Our high school students are getting there at 7 a.m., which is really early. Having that option to grab something before first period is really important. Breakfast protein bars, our sausage and cheese croissant wrapped sandwiches—grab-n-go items work best for them, as they have a short time frame to consume it and it has to be portable.

BB: Why do you feel a healthy school breakfast is so important?

HW: Breakfast is important—you can’t learn without a healthy breakfast! We want to make sure what we offer is a healthy choice; we avoid sugary items. We make a lot of our items from scratch—scrambled eggs, grits, breakfast sandwiches that aren’t pre-made or pre-wrapped. Making sure protein is available in every breakfast choice is also really important. We have a whole grain muffin and pair it with a cheese stick to increase protein that day. Students who have eaten are ready to learn, and we are really happy and proud to have breakfast in our schools.

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