Breakfast Pays Big Dividends in Boston Schools

In 2000, the Boston schools partnered with the Massachusetts General Hospital to conduct a study on the impact of the federal School Breakfast Program in 16 of their elementary schools. Researchers found that a simple breakfast of milk, juice and cereal provides a fourth of the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of key nutrients needed by growing children. Breakfast reduces hunger in the classroom and improves the overall nutrition of the students. They found that student behavior and grades improved, especially in mathematics. Students were able to spend more time on tasks and were more creative. Attendance improved. Students demonstrated better concentration facilities and improved emotional functioning. Trips to the nurse’s office were drastically reduced.

Breakfast is by far the least expensive program for improving academic achievement, yet less than half the children eligible for the free or reduced price meals participate nationwide. One major obstacle is perception — breakfast programs are viewed as programs for the “poor kids”, a label many students wish to avoid. The other major obstacle is timing. Most schools across the country serve breakfast before the start of school — children who arrive late due to tight morning schedules or on buses that are late, miss breakfast.

Many of the schools in Boston have implemented innovative strategies to overcome the obstacles of perception and timing:

o Nearly 80 elementary schools now offer a universal breakfast — all children eat together for free. The “poor kid” stigma has been eliminated.

o Participating Boston schools make breakfast a normal and expected part of the morning schedule — no different than taking attendance.

o Boston schools serve breakfast in a variety of ways, using the method that works best for each individual school’s culture. Methods range from serving cold or hot food in the classroom from a cooler or thermal pack; grab and go, brown bag breakfasts; sending students to the cafeteria after attendance; or a combination of these approaches.

o Involving the children makes the program more successful. Children rotating being in charge of food delivery to the classroom, after-breakfast trash removal, and returning leftovers to the cafeteria instills pride and responsibility. They become part of the program, not just participants.

The Boston schools have been recognized for their efforts in the School Breakfast Program. Project Bread, the state’s leading anti-hunger organization and Boston schools partner in the School Breakfast Program, awards Boston schools that have achieved an 80 percent or greater student participation — the point at which the breakfast program pays for itself with federal dollars.

In 2002, Project Bread recognized 10 elementary schools with the School Breakfast Excellence Award. Each award is $1,000 that the school’s principal can use for any school-related expense.

The Boston schools have found that when their educators make it a priority and part of the daily schedule, it is more acceptable to the students and has a better chance to succeed. Breakfast is such an inexpensive way for Boston schools to achieve substantial academic results — especially in the children who need it the most.