U.S. Mayor Article

Best Practices: Boston's School Breakfast Program Key to Student Academic Performance

By Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino
May 26, 2003

The First Tool for Success: School Breakfast

Most educators recognize the link between a good breakfast and improved classroom behavior. They-ll tell you that hungry kids can't learn. They know that a breakfast as simple as milk, juice, and cereal, which provides one-fourth of the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of key nutrients, can boost their students- grades, help them settle down, spend more time on tasks, and be more creative.

In 2000, Boston partnered with Massachusetts General Hospital to study the impact of the federal School Breakfast Program in 16 of its elementary schools. Researchers found that increasing school breakfast participation was associated with a reduction in child hunger and with improved nutrition, school attendance, emotional functioning, and math grades.

The Key to Improving Participation

Despite the proven link between eating breakfast and academic performance, less than half of the children who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals participate in the program nationwide. A number of barriers prevent students from participating including the stigma associated with school breakfast, where breakfast is seen primarily as a program for "poor kids." Timing of the meal also impacts participation. Breakfast served before school starts doesn't allow children on late buses or with tight morning schedules time to eat.

Breakfast is a school's first and simplest tool for improving academic performance, and to reach the children who need it the most, schools must make breakfast as normal as taking attendance and as expected as reading. To overcome the barriers of stigma and timing, schools are implementing a variety of strategies that best fit the needs of their students.

In Boston, nearly 80 elementary schools offer a universal breakfast program in which all children eat for free. This helps to reduce stigma since students cannot tell the difference between those who qualify for free or reduced-price meals and those who are able to pay. However, this model often achieves only 30 to 40 percent participation.

In partnership with Project Bread, Massachusetts- leading anti-hunger organization, Boston is implementing additional strategies to continue increasing the numbers of children eating breakfast. In June 2002, 10 elementary schools received Project Bread's School Breakfast Excellence Awards for achieving 80 percent or greater participation. This $1000 award can be used at the principal's discretion for any school-related expense. We expect to receive several more awards this year.

One of the most effective strategies to increasing participation is making breakfast part of the school day. Some schools serve a cold or hot breakfast in the classroom from a cooler or thermal pack. Others prefer a "grab and go" brown-bag approach. Some take attendance and then send students to the cafeteria. Others combine approaches.

Making breakfast part of the school day requires a systemic change that must fit into a school's culture, style, and resources. Superintendents, principals, teachers, and even students play a critical role in the success of this change. When the superintendent and principals identify the breakfast program as a priority, schools quickly cut through perceived barriers. Once breakfast becomes a regular part of the day, it begins to create academic equity for all students and gives them the best chance for success.

Teachers reap the benefits of school breakfast and suffer the consequences when children cannot concentrate because of hunger. But they are also concerned about taking time out of teaching to serve students breakfast. Teachers in Boston schools have devised innovative ways to handle the meal in a simple and unobtrusive way. And once they see the results of the breakfast program, they become the greatest champions for change.

Students also have the opportunity to play a significant role in the program. Students can help deliver food to the classroom in coolers and remove trash after breakfast. Isabel Mendez, principal of the Sarah Greenwood Elementary School in Dorchester says, "Kids learn pride and responsibility by being in charge of getting breakfast and bringing the leftovers back to the cafeteria." When the whole classroom participates, breakfast becomes a normal part of the morning routine.

School Breakfast Pays for Itself

Boston schools have seen noticeable improvements since introducing universal breakfast as part of the school day. Teachers report that students have fewer behavior problems, less difficulty focusing, and make fewer trips to the nurse's office. In other words, they have classrooms full of students ready to learn each morning.

The good news is that school breakfast is a low-cost intervention. When schools reach 80 percent participation, the program pays for itself. And more importantly, school breakfast brings in significant federal dollars into cities and towns that are facing shrinking budgets and severe state cutbacks. With schools under pressure to find innovative and inexpensive ways to demonstrate high performance, it only makes sense for schools to take full advantage of this program.

I encourage you to make school breakfast a priority in your city — a small investment in your students' health and learning that will have a tremendous payoff.

Contact Information

For more information on Boston's School Breakfast Program, please contact Project Bread's Child Nutrition Outreach Program at 617-723-5000.

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