A report published by the Children’s Hunger Alliance earlier this month found that Newark City Schools more than doubled the participation in their free breakfast program in three years, from 33 percent participation to 70 percent.
Ben Franklin Elementary School principal Dena Cable-Miller, who created the “Breakfast in the Classroom” program, says an essential component was making it mandatory for kids to even consider breakfast.
“All the boys and girls enter the front doors of the building,” she says, "and they all go to the cafeteria and they proceed through the breakfast line and all students are offered breakfast each day.”
The line snakes through the cafeteria, ebbing and flowing as individual kids are dropped off by their parents and whole busloads arrive before the first bell.
“So in here they all come through the breakfast line, they can take their milk, and they can go check in with our cashier,” Cable-Miller says.
Cashier is a bit of a misnomer—no money is exchanged for the breakfast program. Eighty percent of the students at Ben Franklin qualify for free-or-reduced lunch, which includes breakfast as well. When Cable-Miller designed the "Breakfast in the Classroom" program, she made it free for all students, regardless of status.
She says that acts as an equalizer, and the lack of stigma helped increase participation. Another factor, she says, is timing.
“So the change now is that breakfast is enjoyed by the students during the instructional minutes of the day after the tardy bell,” she says. “You no longer have to come to school early to have breakfast.”
And that meant getting teachers on board.
“The biggest challenge was allowing the teachers to see that it’s not going to be something extra that they’re doing in their classroom, because it’s actually going to be something that happens simultaneously as the students are doing their morning work,” Cable-Miller says.
Krista Campbell has found that to be true in her 2nd grade classroom.
“The breakfast doesn’t make anything longer,” Campbell says. “I really don’t have any messes, and I will say it’s actually cut down on the number of referrals to the health clinic. Kids aren’t having headaches, their bellies aren’t hurting as much, so they actually spend a lot more time in class and focused on their work.”
After the successful pilot at Ben Franklin Elementary, the program spread to all schools in the district, including middle and high schools. Cable-Miller says there’s a lesson in that.
“The recommendation would be to start small because your benefits will grow across the district very quickly,” she says. “We didn’t try to roll this out in all 11 buildings. We tried to build a strong solid in one and then roll it out to the rest.”