As the school food service director for my local school district, it is my job to ensure my students get the food they need at school so they get a quality education and start down a path to future success. Kids can’t be hungry to learn when they’re physically hungry.
One of the hardest parts of being a food service director is seeing kids arrive at school hungry. While researching for a breakfast in the classroom project, I asked our school nurses if they had any data on student visits. I was shocked to learn that 75 percent of morning visits to the nurse were because of hunger. When kids are hungry, they are more likely to act out, test scores drop, attendance plummets and graduation rates fall.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Something as simple as school breakfast can mean the difference between success and failure for many kids. School breakfast is as important to learning as a textbook or a pencil. Unfortunately, Maine has the ninth highest rate of hunger in the nation. One out of every five kids in Maine experiences hunger.
How do we reach more kids more efficiently? One answer is to make sure breakfast is served at a time when most students are already at school. Instead of serving breakfast before school starts, making it available after the bell ensures it reaches more kids who need it.
I decided to try it at Regional School Unit 39. We feed all the kids in two elementary schools after the bell and in the classrooms, at no charge to parents. It sounds easy, but unless you have support from the top — from school boards, superintendents and principals — it can be very difficult. Though it was a financially uncertain move, we did it.
Do more students eat breakfast now in those two schools? Yes. Over a three-month period, there was a 350 percent increase in breakfast participation, and because more students were served breakfast, my school breakfast program received a $55,000 increase in our federal subsidy. Overall, we served 50,000 breakfasts during the last school year, up from 14,000 from the previous school year. Those are the astounding figures in my book.
With traditional breakfast before the bell, I was only feeding about 50 kids each day. Now I am feeding around 190 kids with breakfast in the classroom. Did the teachers like having food and beverages in their classrooms at first? No, but they were amazed by how the kids are more focused, quieter and ready to learn throughout the morning, and now I have their full support. Mid-morning visits to the nurse also have dramatically decreased.
One day last winter while walking down the hallway in one of my elementary schools, I met a group of students. The teacher stopped and asked them if they had something to say to me.
“Thank you for breakfast,” they all said together. “We love it!”
That’s when you know it works. That’s when you know kids are happier and ready to learn.
Even while doing my grocery shopping, a teacher chased me down and said how she does not like food in her classroom, but she loves how alert and ready to learn the kids are now with breakfast in the classroom. That’s when you know it works.
When you go before your school board and they want offer free breakfast for middle school students in the new school year. That’s when you know it works.
We can do this. There is no reason for any child in this state to struggle because they were hungry. We have every reason to help them succeed. After all, they are our future, and they deserve the very best start we can give them.
Louise Dean is the food service director for Regional School Unit 39, which includes Caribou, Limestone and Stockholm.