Breakfast after the bell

Children can’t concentrate in school if they’re hungry. That’s why we’re working with schools to adopt models where breakfast is accessible for every student.

Story by Jessica Carreras. Photos by Sydney Kispert-Bostick.

Long before the halls of Hazel Park High School buzz with the sounds of 900 students, 15-year-old Jordan Aliff shifts his backpack full of books on his shoulder and watches the sun come up as he walks through the school doors. The sophomore serves on student council and comes in before class—sometimes as early as 5 a.m.—for meetings with fellow council members.

Jordan is known by teachers and staff alike for being helpful and polite. He’s nice to everyone he meets, greeting fellow students with a smile. He’s a good student and plans to become a neurologist.

“I want to find a cure for Alzheimer’s and dementia,” he says without hesitation.

It takes a lot of energy for a future doctor to get through a busy day of classes, tests and school events. But like many busy students, eating a healthy breakfast is the last thing on Jordan’s mind.

Hazel Park High School senior Tiffany Ball picks out her breakfast from her school’s mobile breakfast cart before class.

The most important meal of the day

It’s nearly impossible for children to concentrate on learning when they’re hungry.

According to Share Our Strength, the national nonprofit that runs the No Kid Hungry campaign to end childhood hunger in America and a United Way funder, access to breakfast can impact attendance, test scores 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. Fewer absences and higher grades drive high school graduation rates up 20-25 percent.

Schools are taking notice.

“We need to take care of all of students’ needs, and that includes nutritional needs,” says Hazel Park High School Principal Matthew Dailey. “If we can instill some of those good behaviors in students, this is going to have a positive ripple effect.

“We believe we’re saving lives.”

But while research indicates that it’s easiest to get kids to eat breakfast when food is accessible at school and free for all students, making that a common practice statewide is challenging.

As of 2017, 12 states have passed legislation encouraging or mandating that schools do more to get all students to eat breakfast. Commonly, this means implementing alternative breakfast models, such as serving breakfast in the classroom, serving food in hallways on mobile food carts or offering breakfast after classes have begun.

In Michigan, United Way for Southeastern Michigan is working through a grant partnership with Share Our Strength to provide support and funding to implement the alternative breakfast model in more than 100 high-need schools in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Kent, Ingham and Genesee counties.

“Having free, accessible breakfast for all students creates equity and encourages students to eat,” explains United Way Healthy Kids Manager Bryan VanDorn, who oversees our school breakfast work. “We’re focusing on areas where we think we can make the most progress, with a goal of creating a coalition of champions for school breakfast.”

Students at Hazel Park High School line up to get their breakfast items.

Breakfast success in Hazel Park 

Some schools are already showing signs of success.

Working with United Way’s school breakfast coach, Hazel Park High School staff determined that only serving breakfast before school in the snack room near the cafeteria wasn’t effective because 35 percent of students arrive too late to eat, while others were distracted by friends or activities.

“For some students, these may be the only meals they get, so we knew how important it was to make sure they ate,” says Hazel Park Food Service Director Samantha Mozdzierz.

In March 2017, a grant from United Way helped the school purchase one of two mobile breakfast carts, offering free, portable food to students at the school’s main entrances, including after classes had started.

The impact was almost immediate.

On a typical morning at the school, groggy-eyed students begin trickling in around 7 a.m. They’re greeted by Ms. Theresa, who runs the breakfast cart at the back entrance.

The students love Ms. Theresa, and she’s like a mom to them, checking to see if they did their homework, if they’re prepared for their big test and, of course, if they need to eat breakfast.

By 7:15, there’s a line at the breakfast cart.

Jordan says the carts make it easy to grab something to eat after his early-morning council meetings.

“I usually don’t eat breakfast before I leave home. Getting something to eat before class helps me concentrate,” he says.

Tiffany Ball, a senior at Hazel Park, agrees that eating breakfast helps her in school.

“When I started eating breakfast, I noticed I was more energetic,” she says. “It’s easier to focus when you eat something in the morning.”

In February, an average of 105 students per day were eating breakfast at the school. By the end of May, the average was 354.

“We didn’t know if the carts were going to work or not,” Samantha says. “But we found that if you bring food to students instead of making the students come get the food, they eat.”

Hazel Park Public Schools Superintendent Amy Kruppe says she hopes to expand that success to the rest of her district.

“Breakfast is the most important meal in activating learning in the classroom,” she says. “Having the ability to grab something as they come in makes it easy and accessible for students. If they can start their day off right, we know that’s making an impact.”

United Way gave Hazel Park High School a grant to purchase a mobile breakfast cart and helped to implement an alternative breakfast program at the school.

Barriers to school breakfast

Though the impact is clear to schools that make the switch, there are several barriers to moving schools to alternative breakfast models.

First, it takes the full support of school staff—from teachers to principals to janitors. Letting students eat outside of the cafeteria can make it harder to keep schools clean, and some teachers may be reluctant to allow food in their classrooms.

David Andrejko, United Way’s Metro Detroit school breakfast coach contractor, said the support of the superintendent and principal were crucial to making Hazel Park High School’s breakfast plan a success.

“Administration support is key because it takes planning, commitment and support,” he says. “Some schools don’t want to change because they say, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ You have to have staff who are behind it.”

Bryan and his team at United Way often point to a No Kid Hungry study on the success of offering alternative school breakfast models in Maryland schools. After introducing breakfast in the classroom at 130 schools, the state saw a 10 percent increase in students eating breakfast. And in those schools, chronic absenteeism dropped as much as 7.5 percent, and test scores improved as much as 12.5 percent. 

“Many school districts are focused more on standardized test scores and graduation rates,” Bryan adds. “But what we try to help them understand is that ensuring that all students eat breakfast can help them achieve their educational goals.”

Once school officials are convinced of the importance of increasing the numbers of students eating breakfast, they hit another roadblock: the cost of equipment, training and staff.

United Way coaches like David help administrators create an individualized plan to increase the number of students eating breakfast using an alternative breakfast model. The more meals schools serve, the more federal reimbursement they receive, which can help them recoup their equipment and labor costs. In some cases, as with Hazel Park, grants from organizations like United Way or Share Our Strength can help schools make the initial investment.

And for some states, policy changes that secure state funding for school breakfasts have provided a more comprehensive solution.

The next step for United Way is to collect data and success stories from the 130 high-need schools we’re targeting, while also garnering support from parents and other stakeholders. Then, we’ll share those best practices with partners across the state.

“The fact that we still have to discuss the merits of breakfast is crazy,” Bryan says. “But if we continue to illuminate the issue to schools and parents, we can have a positive impact on the whole state.”