As the sun comes up over the Southfield Regional Academic Campus (SRAC), students pour out of buses and cars and through the school’s front door. Principal Dwayne Eason greets them with a smile. And each day, they start their morning the best way: with free breakfast — including breakfast sandwiches, milk and fresh fruit — thanks to a partnership between United Way for Southeastern Michigan, Oakland Schools and the Oakland County Board of Commissioners.
National School Breakfast Week — celebrated the first full week of every March — provided the perfect backdrop to announce an expansion of free breakfast to students in eligible schools across Oakland County. It’s the largest county-wide effort to expand school breakfast in Michigan.
The Oakland County Better With Breakfast program will make free breakfast available to 3,500 students in eligible schools across Oakland County. The program is based on United Way’s Better With Breakfast initiative.
“This program is only possible because of the tremendous amount of hard work from a group of people who believe that every child deserves access to breakfast,” said Oakland County Board Chairman David T. Woodward during a press conference at the school on March 7.
Research shows that the simple act of eating school breakfast can dramatically change a child’s life — improving test scores, attendance and even graduation rates. On average, students who eat breakfast attend 1.5 more days of school per year and score 17.5 percent higher on standardized math tests, according to Share Our Strength.
“Believe it or not, the Oakland County Better With Breakfast program was developed to improve academic outcomes,” said Oakland Schools Superintendent Dr. Wanda Cook-Robinson. “We want to see students hunger for knowledge, not food.”
Nationwide, one in five children struggles with hunger. Additionally, three out of five teachers say they reach kids who regularly come to school hungry.
In Oakland County, an estimated 7,300 students struggle with hunger.
United Way works with individual schools and districts to help them grow school breakfast participation. We do this by investing in alternative breakfast models, such as mobile breakfast carts and food in classrooms. In addition to grant funding, we help schools identify and eliminate barriers to school breakfast. In Hazel Park High School, we helped the school grow breakfast participation from an average of 105 students per day to 334 students.
Oakland Schools and Oakland County officials took notice and vowed to expand the program county-wide. As a result, the Oakland County Better With Breakfast program was created.
Oakland County and Oakland Schools are funding the program. Once implemented, the program will result in an estimated $1.2 million annually in federal reimbursement for breakfast in participating schools.
United Way will provide technical assistance and help develop implementation strategies designed to accommodate the unique needs of each eligible school.
“As one of the largest safety net organizations in the region, we’re proud to have food at the core of our mission,” said Dr. Darienne Driver, President and CEO of United Way for Southeastern Michigan. “We understand that teachers can have the best curriculum, all the technology and the latest classroom gadgets.
“If the students don’t have their basic needs met, we’re stopped before we’ve even gotten started.”
Taylen Mention, a senior at SRAC, has noticed a positive difference in his attitude since eating breakfast more regularly.
His favorite is the pancakes, but he also likes the healthy options available on the cart.
“The fresh fruit is right there in your face so you’re a lot more likely to grab it,” he said.
The Oakland County Better with Breakfast program announcement coincides with National School Breakfast Week. This weeklong celebration stresses the importance of breakfast for student performance.
“If we’re going to say breakfast is the most important meal of the day then we need to be doing everything we can to make sure every student gets it,” said SRAC Principal Dwayne Eason. “We can help make sure their brains are ready to learn.”
When the school year began, breakfast was only available in the cafeteria. Dwayne noticed the vast majority of students were not taking advantage of it. United Way and the school board suggested moving breakfast to a grab-and-go food cart at the front door.
This simple relocation helped increase the breakfast participation from 11 percent to 64 percent over just a few months.
Roszella Clark, who teaches 11th-grade English, is already noticing a difference in her students.
“It really gives the kids that added bit of energy to be more alert and active in class,” Roszella said.
“Attendance is up, and our test scores have also increased now that more students are eating breakfast,” he said. “It’s been a big boost for our school.”