Feeding students is not just about food, said J.S. Jenks Elementary principal Mary Lynskey. “It’s about logistics.”
When the Northwest Philadelphia school tried serving breakfast in the cafeteria for grades 4-8 before the opening bell in September, most of the students either hadn’t arrived yet or preferred to play in the yard.
Now, after winter break, students get breakfast in the classroom after the opening bell, and almost all eat it.
They might be doing silent reading or journaling, Lynskey says, but “if your friends are [also] eating, there’s a social aspect to it.”
“Schools need to make breakfast part of the school day,” said Kathy Fisher, policy director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. “It helps the school climate.”
Although schools serve two meals a day, breakfast is considered the more important for nutritional reasons and is also the hardest to get right.
At lunch, the students are always in the building, although large schools with staggered lunch hours may have some eating it mid-morning. But students won’t miss that meal unless they simply refuse to eat.
In 2014, Jenks won a Pennsylvania School Breakfast Challenge Award, given by a coalition including anti-hunger organizations, education associations, and state government.
Fisher said that offering a healthy breakfast – and having it consumed – can be particularly difficult in an urban area such as Philadelphia, where many students walk to school past retail outlets offering unhealthy food choices.
Typical “healthy breakfast” menu items in the School District might include non-sugared cereal with 1 percent milk, fresh fruit, yogurt, or whole-grain pancakes.
The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), a national nonprofit organization, recommends that all schools provide breakfast after the bell using one of three models:
• Prepackaged breakfasts distributed in high-traffic areas throughout the schools.
• “Second-chance breakfasts,” offered between first and second periods.
• Breakfasts delivered directly to the classroom using temperature-controlled portable bags or other transporters.
At Jenks, breakfasts are delivered to classrooms by older students, who pick them up in the cafeteria.
According to FRAC’s 2015 report “School Breakfast After the Bell,” principals in schools that serve breakfast after the school day starts reported improved student attentiveness, fewer visits to the school nurse, lower absenteeism, fewer disciplinary referrals – and even some improvements in reading and math test scores.
Resources for schools
Schools wanting to improve best practices for breakfast – or other nutrition initiatives – can take advantage of numerous governmental and non-governmental resources.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which sets standards for school meals subsidized by the government, also emphasizes educating students about the standards, including colorful signage in cafeterias to encourage healthy food choices.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Healthy Schools program, which provides technical advice and guidance to more than 100 Philadelphia School District schools, recommends that schools provide instruction in several areas, including:
• Healthy eating and its connection to personal health.
• Making healthy choices when eating in restaurants.
• Resisting peer pressure to practice unhealthy dietary behavior.
• Eating more fruits, vegetables and whole-grain products.
The Healthy Schools program also emphasizes a holistic approach toward wellness that blends school food, nutrition education, and physical activity.
Fisher worries that activity is now the area where the city’s schools may be falling short, as physical education is de-emphasized in favor of academic subjects in which students are tested.
“If you’re talking about wellness,” Fisher said, “it’s hard to separate that out.”