By Bill Shore
Executive Director & Co-Founder
Share Our Strength
At the end of February, a Share Our Strength Hinges of Hope delegation visited five classrooms at a school in the Bronx to learn more about a pilot effort in 22 New York schools to serve breakfast in the classroom instead of the cafeteria. It’s a simple but critical innovation to ensure that all eligible children get school breakfast.
The School Breakfast Program was enacted by Congress as a pilot in 1966 and made permanent in 1975. It is considered a cornerstone of our national commitment to ensure that low income children start their school day with the food and nutrition they need. But many children fail to take advantage of it. For lunch they are already at school. Breakfast means arriving early, different bus schedules, and often the stigma that comes with identifying themselves as needing a free or reduced price breakfast.
Cheryl Coles, who has been principal of P.S. 68 for 15 years, explained to us, “Many of our parents are from the islands, very proud and they won’t accept assistance. Not many of our kids are homeless, about 6-7 percent. 90 percent qualify for free or reduced price lunch.”
She told us of the 40-50 students who used to be chronically late, “my ten o’clock scholars” she called them, and how serving breakfast in the classroom changed all of that. “We used to call parents at home and ask ‘why are your kids falling asleep in class?’. But now they come and are focused, alert, and we have much less tardiness and much better attendance.”
The biggest challenge in implementing breakfast in the classroom was not money, or time, or logistics. Increased volume actually makes the program less expensive. Teachers find that reduction in tardiness and fewer visits to the nurse often yield more classroom time, not less. Many of the initial skeptics of breakfast in the classroom have become the strongest advocates.
One of the biggest issues was who cleans up spills and trash? Teachers, cafeteria workers, and custodial crews all have their own unions and their own contracts specifying what they do and don’t do, and where. Breakfast in the classroom didn’t fit any of the existing procedures. The solution, as usual, came down to leadership.
Overcoming the challenge of low participation in school breakfast was a great example of how most failures in life are not failures of strategy or planning or execution, but rather failures of imagination.
The school breakfast program has run one way and only one way for almost half a century. For all of those years advocates and officials beat their head against the wall trying to figure out how to increase participation rates. And then one day a leap of imagination pointed to another way of doing business. It requires everyone involved to stretch a bit, to cross boundaries, to take on a little more than their job description specifies. It requires them to have a larger sense of themselves than they had beforehand.
For more information about Share Our Strength, and the organization’s mission to end childhood hunger in America, visit www.strength.org