Teachers across Southeastern Michigan are noticing a remarkable transformation in their classrooms.
Their students are looking directly at them—and paying attention to what they’re saying—they’ll tell you. Where eyes once gazed out the window and heads rested upon desks, teachers now see hands raised to answer questions and hear more voices contributing to class discussions.
And all of this is attributable to the power of a healthy meal.
Breakfast is a super fuel that boosts energy and mental focus. Research shows that hungry students struggle to keep their minds on classroom instruction, while children who have eaten a healthy breakfast have fewer school absences, perform better academically and are more likely to graduate.
Through legislative advocacy and innovative free meal programs like Meet Up and Eat Up, United Way for Southeastern Michigan works to give children the nutrients they need to succeed.
In partnership with No Kid Hungry, United Way is helping schools in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties implement Better With Breakfast programs, which offer new solutions for making free school breakfast easily accessible to all students.
Serving breakfast in the classrooms before classes start and placing mobile breakfast carts in the hallways are among the ways schools are ensuring hunger isn’t a barrier to learning.
“A hungry child can’t learn,” says Katie McConkie, director of food services for Lamphere Schools in Madison Heights, where she’s served for 25 years.
At Hiller Elementary School, employing Better With Breakfast modifications to a long-standing free breakfast program increased participation by more than 75 percent. McConkie says the breakfast program’s current 98 percent participation rate mirrors attendance, and it is a testament to the effectiveness of serving breakfast in the classrooms before the school day begins.
“If we had 100 percent attendance in school, we’d have 100 percent participation in the breakfast program,” she says.
McConkie makes sure the menu meets nutritional standards established by federal guidelines. “When you see these kids eating, it just makes you feel really good knowing that they’re getting the nutrients they need to learn,” she says.
Healthy snacks like yogurt, fresh fruit, bagels and string cheese are available for students who don’t want a larger breakfast. Even the “donut” bites are made with whole grains.
“Being able to serve free breakfast in our classrooms is something that we all are beyond grateful for at Hiller,” says Hiller Elementary School Principal Lindsay Staskowski. “There isn’t a better way for our students to start their day and get ready to maximize their learning for the day than by having free breakfast in our classrooms.”
Throughout her career, McConkie has looked for avenues to provide more free meals for students. She was thrilled when David Andrejko, a breakfast coach with United Way for Southeastern Michigan, contacted her about Better With Breakfast and its grant funding to support implementation.
After serving for 45 years as a food service director for Michigan schools, Andrejko came out of retirement in 2017 to help United Way launch its Better With Breakfast programs in Southeastern Michigan.
Andrejko goes into schools that have a high need for free and reduced meals, but low breakfast participation. “We look into each school’s specific needs and explore how we can feed more kids by serving breakfast in different ways,” he says.
Over the last three years, a grant from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund has helped United Way expand the initiative.
United Way provides guidance and expertise on logistics, and covers any additional equipment needed to expand the free breakfast program. “David was a hero, and he thought of everything, down to buckets and wipes,” McConkie says.
Andrejko helped McConkie expand the free breakfast program at Hiller to other Lamphere schools, and to get buy-in from principals, superintendents, teachers and staff. He helped her find solutions to initial pushback, such as concerns that breakfast in the classrooms would create more work for teachers and custodial staff.
Designating separate trash cans in each classroom for breakfast waste makes morning meal cleanup much easier for custodians at Hiller, who simply pick up the bags from each room throughout the day.
McConkie regularly solicits breakfast program feedback from administrators, teachers and staff, who have quickly become Better With Breakfast devotees.
“They are all so supportive of this program at Lamphere,” McConkie says. “It’s just a win for everyone.”
Mornings look and feel much different for the families across Southeastern Michigan whose children eat breakfast at school. Without the stress of making breakfast in the morning, everyone gets more sleep. And students look forward to starting the school day.
“My kids are getting at least an extra hour of sleep every morning now. That’s amazing,” says Jennifer Schulte, who has three children in Lamphere Schools—a daughter in 11th grade at Lamphere High School, a daughter in 6th grade at John Page Middle School, and a son in 2nd grade at Lessenger Elementary School.
“My middle daughter absolutely loves it. Even when she runs a little late in the morning, she can still get breakfast. My son’s favorite part is the fresh fruit. And they all love the bagels,” Schulte says.
The benefits extend beyond the classroom, she says. Her kids are developing healthier eating habits — they prefer whole grain options now. And morning breakfast time with their school friends broadens their social connections. “For my son, that carries over into being more engaged in his morning class work,” Schulte says.
For the nearly 40 percent of households in Southeastern Michigan who struggle to make ends meet, free school meals provide much-needed extra room in their budgets for more groceries and other essentials.
“Having our students not have to worry about paying for a healthy, nurturing breakfast is comforting to all of our families,” Principal Staskowski says.
Parents who responded to a Better With Breakfast survey in Lamphere Schools say they are grateful for the relief.
“With breakfast being provided, we have more time at home, which allows the kids to sleep and wake more naturally, and makes the mood way more positive for all,” said one parent.
“We live paycheck to paycheck, and we have three kids here in Lamphere Schools, so it has saved us some money to put toward our groceries for home,” said another parent.
During the pandemic, schools were granted waivers through June 2022 to implement Healthy Meals for All, which provided free breakfast and lunch to all students.
United Way partnered with Public Sector Consultants to evaluate the benefits of Healthy Meals for All and found that students who had full stomachs showed significant positive academic and behavioral outcomes—supporting the importance of providing universal free meals to all students, regardless of household income.
Buzz about free breakfast programs’ direct link to academic success has brought wide support from school systems. A partnership between United Way for Southeastern Michigan, Oakland Schools and the Oakland County Board of Commissioners is working to expand Better With Breakfast countywide.
“We burned through our funds in the first year, which is a good thing,” Andrejko says. Requests to implement Better With Breakfast programs have far exceeded expectations.
“When I started, we had roughly a dozen schools adopting Better With Breakfast. Now we have more than 45. That’s nearly a 400 percent increase, and that is, to me, the most amazing result,” Andrejko says.
Andrejko will finish his three-year commitment to the program this July. You can hear the emotion in his voice when he talks about what United Way and Better With Breakfast partners have achieved.
“Our goal was to show that Better With Breakfast creates better attendance, better attitudes, and better behavior, and we’ve shown that,” Andrejko says. “Breakfast makes kids happier.”
States across the country, including Michigan, are exploring legislation to implement Healthy School Meals for All, which will extend the school meals program provided during the pandemic.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s 2023 budget includes $160M to support the program, and similar proposals are included in both the state House and Senate budgets.
If the budgets pass, Michigan will become the fourth state to ensure that all students have access to healthy meals to start the school day — which will save families an estimated $850 per year.