Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom Chat: Kathleen Prechtel, RDN, School Nutrition Director

Before she became the school nutrition director for Saint Lawrence Catholic School Kathleen Prechtel was a clinical dietitian, and then a stay-at-home mom. It was when the kids started school that Prechtel was introduced to the world of school nutrition.

“My kids went to a Catholic school where there wasn’t so much a lunch program as an energetic group of volunteers who brought lunch in for the students,” said Prechtel. “I decided to center my volunteer efforts there, and so for seven years I coordinated the lunch program at my kids’ school.”

After her youngest graduated, Prechtel found herself missing the hustle and bustle of school life, so she applied for a job at a small nearby school. She got the job and set to work bringing the school nutrition operation back in-house. Soon after, a chance meeting with a sorority sister led Prechtel to take on a second school—St. Lawrence—where breakfast participation was struggling.

“My schools are very different demographically—one is a small-town farming community, while the other is very urban and diverse with a 75 percent free and reduced rate. I needed to reinvent things at that school, and now we’re off and running with breakfast-in-the-classroom.”

Right away Prechtel knew breakfast participation at St. Lawrence needed a boost.

“When I arrived in the 2015-16 school year we had 25 to 30 kids eating breakfast each day,” she said. “Our cafeteria [is in] a separate building so students really had to make an effort to get breakfast. When I told my principal, and compared participation to our free-and-reduced percentage, she agreed our numbers needed to be higher.”

Around the same time Prechtel attended the Indiana School Nutrition Association fall meeting where School Nutrition Foundation project manager Sarah Murphy Youssef was presenting on the Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom grant.

“One week my principal is calling me in to talk about how to get more students eating breakfast, and the next I’m meeting with Sarah who has money for breakfast-in-the-classroom!” said Prechtel. “I came back from Indiana SNA and told our principal about the grant, and said ‘I really think we can do this.’ That was November. I had the grant written in December before the holiday break. I had a huge amount of technical assistance and support from [Partners for BIC consultant] Liz Campbell.”

After a successful trial run in May 2016, Prechtel launched her breakfast-in-the-classroom program in Fall 2016. Looking back on two years of BIC service, Prechtel says the secret to success is simple.

“Simply changing where students could get breakfast, and making it universal/free for students was huge—those two things are why it’s been so successful.”

Grant funds helped Prechtel purchase a point-of-sale tablet to make service faster and easier for her school nutrition staff. Holding a teacher orientation helped teaching staff understand their role in the breakfast-in-the-classroom process, including what makes a reimbursable meal. The teachers caught on right away, said Prechtel.

“Our teachers are so used to filling out forms, it’s just one more thing! I make rounds once or twice a week, visiting classrooms to check in on how breakfast is going and making sure students are taking a reimbursable meal. I had to do some reminding, some refreshing—mostly to make sure they’re taking that fruit!—but the teachers do a great job.”

Breakfast-in-the-classroom has also given Prechtel the opportunity to communicate to students the importance of getting some protein in the morning.

“I think before breakfast-in-the-classroom the students were sort of like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I need to eat something,’ but we have communicated the idea that fueling your brain and starting the day with energy is really connected to academic success. I’ve been able to better communicate to them the importance of getting a little bit of protein, whether it’s milk or a cheese stick or some yogurt.”

There were other unintended benefits to breakfast-in-the-classroom as well, particularly for parents, said Prechtel.

“Our parents don’t have to make that extra stop, or spend that extra money, on whatever fast-food or convenience breakfast the kids were eating before,” she said. “Now we have kids getting to school on time so they don’t miss breakfast!”

Prechtel is always looking for new ways to capture students who aren’t eating breakfast. “Try It” days and contests during National School Breakfast Week, inviting legislators to come and greet students during breakfast service, and regularly asking students what they want to see on the school breakfast menu are all strategies she employs to keep her program moving in the right direction. Her next step is installing a combination oven to give her menu more variety.

“With a combi we can make little egg muffins, we can do eggs quickly  to make breakfast burritos; we might even be able to prep a day before. We’ll figure out what works best, but I’m excited because I’ll be able to prepare nutritious items quickly that will also hold and taste great thirty minutes later.”

Kathleen’s Top Tips

  • Work with your local Dairy Council to find recipes (ex. smoothies) and other breakfast menu items
  • Survey students to determine preferences; Kathleen engages students even further by asking, “If you were me, would you serve this on your menu?”
  • Give grocery store gift cards as NSBW contest prizes, and include a flier about healthy shopping and eating to send home with your students
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