FREDERICA — Around 8:15 a.m Friday at Lake Forest East Elementary School, kids were already settled into their classrooms, eating blueberry muffins and drinking orange juice.
For the past two years, principal Susan Piavis has been trying something new at the school — serving breakfast in the classroom.
“It’s a nice start to the day,” she said, “Knowing that everybody’s fed and everybody has a calm start with their family home room.”
Lake Forest East is among a handful of elementary schools throughout the state where kids eat at their desks instead of in the cafeteria.
Advocates hope the idea will catch on; it’s been proven to increase participation in the school breakfast program.
According to one study, the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index project, more than one in four households with children in the state face food hardship. With so many hungry children, nutritionists argue that participating in the school breakfast program is critical.
"In the big picture, it's the way to go, because there's a lot of hungry students out there," said Donald Jumper, Lake Forest supervisor of child nutrition.
For Lt. Gov. Matt Denn, serving breakfast in the classroom is a straightforward, low-cost way to improve academic performance. He hopes every elementary school will take a cue from Lake Forest East.
“We know that a substantial percentage of our kids in our schools who are eligible to receive free and reduced-priced breakfast don’t take advantage of it,” he said.
“We also know based on a number of empirical studies that have been done that there is a real connection between students’ ability to have a healthy breakfast and students’ ability to thrive at school.”
Eating in the morning sets kids up for a day of learning and activity; studies show that breakfast improves students’ alertness, memory and even test scores. It can also lead to better eating habits and reduces illness.
But according to the state Department of Education, about a quarter of the students statewide who are eligible for free and reduced breakfast aren’t taking advantage of it. Some advocacy groups estimate that the percentage may be higher, Lt. Gov. Denn said — more than 40 percent.
The classroom solution
Lake Forest East student Bryan Corloqui-Nava, 9, remembers lining up in the morning at the cafeteria back when he was in first grade; he likes eating in the classroom better.
“You don’t have to walk in and get your breakfast in there,” he explained.
In most schools, kids who eat breakfast have to get off the bus and head straight to the cafeteria, where they will spend most of their time waiting in line.
To Ms. Piavis, that’s just not the best way to start the day. Sometimes, students opted out of breakfast just because they didn’t want to deal with the hassle; nationwide, hungry students are skipping breakfast thanks to bus schedules, late arrivals and long lines. And sometimes, eating breakfast at school carries a social stigma with it — kids may just be too embarrassed to single themselves out by heading to the cafeteria.
That’s why some school leaders are moving the meal into the classroom and making it part of the school day.
“Nutrition folks are very enthusiastic about it,” Lt. Gov. Denn said. “They’ve seen the data as it pertains to the kids academically, socially, nutritionally.”
Feeding hundreds efficiently
Although Lt. Gov. Denn hopes to make breakfast more accessible, he doesn’t think it’s a matter for lawmakers to tackle.
“We’re trying to deal with it at the district and school level. We’re not trying to have a law or regulation put in place that says you should do this,” he said.
Eating breakfast in the classroom comes with logistical challenges — it’s something that school staff need to think through and organize on their own terms, because each school is set up differently.
For teachers struggling to manage their time, serving breakfast can be just one more thing to do on top of an already-busy schedule.
“They’re not insurmountable challenges,” Lt. Gov. Denn said, “But they’re things we have to work though.”
Depending on the needs of a school, there are a variety of ways to serve breakfast in the classroom.
In some schools, students grab a bagged breakfast from carts. At Lake Forest East, breakfasts are delivered directly to the classroom in insulated containers, where students eat during the first few minutes of the school day.
“It is a little bit more time-consuming because there are more students that are eating,” said Leslie Holloway, food service manager at Lake Forest East.
But, she added, most of the prep work needs to be done regardless; her schedule has just changed.
Still, cafeteria workers find time to make a hot meal two or three times a week. Piggly sticks — sausage and pancakes on a stick — are a big favorite.
“We are trying not to do the honeybuns and the poptarts,” Ms. Piavis said. “We’re sticking more toward decent carbohydrates and fresh fruit.”
After breakfast, custodial staff are tasked to quickly clear out the mess and empty the trash from each classroom.
But in all, serving breakfast and clean up is more efficient now, Ms. Piavis said, and that saved time adds to classroom time; breakfast starts around 8:10 a.m., the announcements are on by 8:30 a.m., and the food is cleared and put away, with trash bags pulled and replaced, by 9 a.m.
In middle and high schools, serving breakfast gets more complicated. At William Henry Middle School in Capital School District, staff started preparing “grab and go” lunch bag breakfasts for students.
Out of some 900 students at William Henry, about 600 eat breakfast there every day. Serving a cafeteria breakfast caused big back-ups.
“William Henry had so many students that it would be virtually impossible to get them all in the cafeteria with the time we had with them,” said James Trower, the supervisor of child nutrition for Capital.
Serving breakfast in the classroom, like anything else, has its pros and cons, he said. It’s up to school leaders to decide how to structure their schedule.
“Each situation presents its own unique challenges. Obviously I want the students to eat. That’s what I’m here for, to make sure that they eat breakfast,” he said.
“My philosophy is, if they’re able to do it and their school decides that they want to pursue it, my people will be there to make sure they have the items that’s needed to do it in the classroom.”
At Lake Forest East, Ms. Piavis’ experience backs up the studies: kids are definitely eating more breakfast now that she’s serving it in the classroom. She estimated that more than 75 percent of the kids eat breakfast at the school every day.
“A parent shared that her child never wanted to eat breakfast,” she said. “Now she eats breakfast every day and looks forward to coming to school.”
And although serving breakfast in the classroom can take away from teacher’s preparation time, it also gives them an extra half-hour with their students.
Teachers can use that time to to play music, to start teaching or even to watch news with their students. At Lake Forest East, kids often work with supportive software on computers over breakfast.
Even before it became a school-wide initiative, Ms. Piavis used breakfast as a time to learn; she and another teacher picked out needy students to eat with in the morning so that they had more time to work with them. The rest of the teachers were impressed.
“Other people were saying, ‘Well, why can’t we do something like that? I want some extra time with my kids,’” she said.
About 70 percent of the students at Lake Forest East qualify for free or reduced meals, Mr. Jumper said. But in all four Lake Forest elementary schools, staff serve breakfast free to everyone.
Schools that offer free breakfast to everyone, often called "universal," need to pay for reduced price and full price meals themselves, said Alison May, a spokesperson for the Department of Education. But typically, she said, schools with a high free and reduced-price population can easily affort to serve everyone; the breakfast reimbursement that they receive covers costs.
As of October 2012, there were 58 district schools statewide that participated in universal breakfast. In Capital, breakfast has been served free to all students for the past five years, Mr. Trower said. But even for schools who don’t serve universal breakfast, meals in the classroom can still work.
“There are some responsibility of the parents for the kids who have to pay for it to keep track of how their kid is using their account. It’s something parents have constant access too,” Lt. Gov. Denn said.
“I think that’s something that parents are already attuned to.”
Staff writer Eleanor La Prade can be reached at 741-8242 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @DSNEleanor on Twitter.