Quieting Grumbling Stomachs in the Classroom
By David Lewis
Cristina Sepe had every reason to be nervous. It was her first job out of Stanford, her first time in Baltimore, and she had to talk to important people about an issue she herself was still learning about. Nonetheless, as a Bill Emerson Hunger Fellow, she had a job to do and there was a lot at stake. These discussions could persuade school administrators to help children in Baltimore eat a healthy breakfast every morning at school. Otherwise many could stay hungry until the afternoon.
Even though all Baltimore school children are eligible for reduced or free breakfast, less than one-third take advantage of the city’s school breakfast program. The food problem of Baltimore echoes that of most of the United States. About 19 million school children receive reduced or free lunch during school, but only 8 million receive breakfast.
“Teachers and principals know that children go into the classroom hungry,” said Sepe. “Schools need to step up to increase student participation.”
Sepe points to the stigma perceived by eating a school breakfast and the insufficient time for children to eat before class as the major factors of low participation. But she believes that increasing school breakfast participation is not only healthy but would help children perform better in school.
“Research shows that participation in school breakfast improves test scores and class participation and reduces absenteeism and tardiness,” said Sepe. “It’s not a panacea for better performance but it’s important for students.”
To combat hunger, Sepe worked with the non-profit Maryland Hunger Solutions and went to several schools across Baltimore to promote alternative ways to provide breakfast to hungry children. The major option Sepe promoted was what she called a “grab-and-go” system, in which a child would pick up bagged breakfast—which included fruit, milk, cereal, and other nutritious foods—and eat in the classroom.
Sepe believed this process would increase participation by allowing children more time to eat before class and reduce the stigma of eating a school breakfast with most children in a classroom eating a bagged breakfast.
But her “grab-and-go” option did not sit well with most of the school administrators she met with. Many rejected the idea because of the perceived trash that would be created inside the classroom.
“The mess was the biggest concern,” said Sepe. “They thought a lot of teachers would oppose it because it would disrupt their morning schedules.
According to Sepe, the few schools who did utilize alternative forms of breakfast had little trouble with trash, while increasing school breakfast participation. Within a week of talking to administrators at Calverton Elementary, Calverton principal Tanya Green implemented breakfast in the classroom. Calverton increased its school breakfast participation from 10 percent to 90 percent in a span of two months.
“She wasn’t very concerned with capacity issues or mess,” said Sepe, referring to Green. “She basically said what’s the hurt in just trying it out.”
National Academy Foundation High, another school Sepe met with, established a grab-and-go system that boosted breakfast participation from 10 children to 90, feeding about one-third of the student body.
Sepe found that teachers who took on alternative ways to feed children in the classroom liked the change.
“They said it was a change they were reluctant to take on at first,” said Sepe. “But once it happened, they wouldn’t want to change it back.”