Eating in the classroom once resulted in detention. At the Veazie Street School in Providence, it’s a part of the curriculum. The K through 5 elementary school in Wanskuck, where 94 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, serves breakfast in the classroom to start the school day.
“We know that every child is offered a breakfast prior to starting their day,” said principal Colleen Caswell. The menu ranges from cereal bars, fruit and milk, to hot omelettes. “You can’t work if you’re hungry.”
While it was once taboo, allowing food in the classroom and in the hallways are some of the strategies schools across the country are adopting to encourage students in poverty to take advantage of the federally-funded school breakfast program.
In Rhode Island, only about half of the students who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunch also eat breakfast at school. That means 24,000 of the poorest children in Rhode Island aren’t getting the healthy, federally-funded breakfast available to them at their school.
“Too many schools in Rhode Island are leaving federal money on the table when it comes to providing free breakfast to their students,” said Governor Gina Raimondo, who recently visited Veazie Street Elementary to draw attention to its breakfast program. “We know students can’t do their best work if they’re hungry.”
A recent report from the National Governor’s Association ranks Rhode Island 34th in the nation when it comes to providing impoverished students with school breakfast. It recommends “70% of children who eat free or reduced-priced (F/RP) lunch also receive school breakfast.” Rhode Island, where 53 percent of students who get free or reduced-priced lunch also eat breakfast, would need to serve an additional 8,500 breakfasts to meet that criteria. The state’s Third Grade Reading Action Plan calls for reaching the 70 percent breakfast benchmark by 2025.
Part of the discrepancy between breakfast and lunch is breakfast isn’t baked into the school day the way lunch is. “The traditional model of serving breakfast in the cafeteria before class often does not reach all the students who need it,” according to RIDE’s School Breakfast Challenge web page.
That’s where programs like breakfast in the classroom at Veazy Street come in. The NGA “Best Practices” report lauds Providence, where 73 percent of free and reduced-price lunch recipients also eat breakfast, as a potential role model for the rest of the state.
It also flags 10 communities for having “the most opportunity to increase breakfast participation.” They are, in order: Pawtucket, Warwick, Cranston, East Providence, Johnston, West Warwick, Bristol-Warren, Central Falls, Newport, and Coventry.
“A student cannot perform at their best without access to proper nutrition, and we continue to work to expand that access so every single child is healthy, supported, and positioned for success,” said RIDE Commissioner Ken Wagner. “In particular, we’re challenging schools this year to increase participation in school breakfast programs, which lag behind our school lunch program, and to think outside the box and look at alternative delivery models to find a system that works for their students and their school community.”
Cranston is addressing its breakfast potential with what is called the “grabn’go” breakfast. It’s a food cart strategically placed where students hang out before class that serves school breakfast. “Kids can literally grab breakfast on the way to class,” said Cranston Superintendent Jeannine Nota.
“Each cart has a wide variety of breakfast items including smoothies, which the students really enjoy,” said Tricia Wright, who manages Cranston’s school food offerings for Aramark.
At Park View Middle School, where Cranston debuted the grabn’go breakfast last October, daily breakfasts jumped from about 100 per day to more than 170. When a grabn-go cart was added at Cranston West in April, daily breakfasts went from 133 per day to 170. A third grabn-go cart was added at Hope Highlands Middle School about a month ago.
“We are hoping that as the program grows so will participation,” Wright said.