Less than 10 percent of students at Frederick Douglass Elementary in Leesburg were eating school breakfast last school year, and educators noticed the impact: Students were fidgety and cranky and sometimes had to leave class to see the school nurse because of stomach aches.
About one-third of the Loudoun County school’s students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, but many of those children were not eating breakfast at school. The reason? Students were worried that a sit-down breakfast in the cafeteria would make them late in the midst of the rush to get to class.
Cathy Wilson, the school’s cafeteria manager, said she believed the bustling cafeteria was intimidating some students so much that they just didn’t want to walk in.
So Wilson came up with a solution: Let children grab their breakfasts and go straight to class with the meals.
The idea, implemented at the start of 2015, has had dramatic results. The number of students eating school breakfast has more than doubled from the start of last school year to this school year, going from 60 to 130.
The program gained the attention of Katie Wilson, deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services at the Agriculture Department, who visited the school during School Breakfast Week in March, according to Loudoun Now.
Educators have long recognized the importance of breakfast for helping children learn and stay focused, as eating breakfast has been linked to higher test scores and lower rates of childhood obesity. But there have been challenges to getting children — even those who qualify for free breakfast because they come from low-income families — to chow down in the morning.
“It’s what your mom always told you. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” said Becky Domokos-Bays, supervisor of school nutrition services for Loudoun County schools. “You need to get a balanced nutritious meal in the morning so your brain can start working.”
Katie Wilson, who previously worked as a school nutrition director in Wisconsin, said children there who qualified for free and reduced meals tended to avoid school breakfast because they worried about being tagged as poor while their more affluent classmates ate breakfast at home.
Getting breakfast out of the cafeteria and into the classroom could erase some of the stigma. Frederick Douglass Elementary draws from affluent and extremely poor communities, but Domokos-Bays said the program also has boosted participation among wealthier students who pay full price.
“We typically get more paying students to participate as well since they also want to be like their friends,” Domokos-Bays said.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) included $2.1 million in funding over two years for school breakfast in his proposed budget, with some of that money designated to help school districts try alternative breakfast models.
No Kid Hungry, an advocacy group that works on childhood hunger issues, has pushed alternative delivery models as a way to get more students to eat breakfast.
School meals have been seen as a critical way to reduce childhood hunger for students who come from households in poverty. Even in wealthy Loudoun County, nearly 20 percent of schoolchildren qualify for free- and reduced-price meals, and more than 1,000 children are homeless. More than half of public-school children nationwide qualify for free- and reduced-price meals.
At Frederick Douglass, the most marked increase in participation came among children who qualify for free school meals. The school was serving an average of 33 free breakfasts to qualifying children last year. Now, the cafeteria serves an average of 73 free breakfasts, meaning about 40 percent of children who qualify for free meals are eating school breakfast. That’s good news for children who might not have been eating at home.
Countywide, about one-third of all children who qualify for free meals eat school breakfast. The county serves an average of 5,538 breakfasts every day, up 24 percent from the same time last year, but that still represents less than 10 percent of the district’s student body.
It also has had a soothing effect for otherwise hectic mornings. Children now eat their school breakfasts — which can include a cheese stick, a sausage sandwich, fruit, zucchini bread and other options — during morning announcements. They no longer have to sprint to class or chug a milk carton to make it to class on time.
The program has created “a much calmer start to the day for everybody,” Principal Paula Huffman said. “The kids aren’t stressed about being late to class.”
Some classrooms are exempt from the program. Kindergarten students still eat breakfast in the cafeteria because they need extra supervision. Students who come from classrooms that are designated food-free because of children with severe food allergies also continue to eat in the cafeteria.
Huffman said the classroom breakfasts have not disrupted learning, which was a concern among some teachers.
“We don’t really have any food fights in the classroom,” Huffman said.
Katie Wilson said Frederick Douglass Elementary’s administration “really embraced wellness.” She views breakfast as an important tool for a child’s success in school, adding that every teacher wants “every tool possible for that child to be successful.”