If They Don’t Eat At School, They Don’t Eat

When Eric Jones, Principal of J.O. Johnson High School in Huntsville, AL, started a “Breakfast in the Classroom” program, it made me stop and think for a moment. Would the loss of instructional time be worth it?

Don’t get me wrong. Our school had a huge breakfast program. In fact, if you walked into our cafeteria at 7:15 a.m. you would have thought it was lunchtime. The cafeteria was completely full.

After thinking for a moment, a number of points in support of Eric’s approach occurred to me. First, every school has its own DNA. Our students were eating breakfast in the cafeteria. Eric’s students, for whatever reason, were not. If he did not feed them in their classrooms, they would not eat.

Second, I was reminded of Roy Baumeister’s excellent book, Willpower. Baumeister points out that “depletion” weakens willpower. When students don’t eat, their blood glucose levels drop and they become “depleted.” In a “depleted” state, learning will not take place. Feeding students will raise their blood glucose levels, which will help improve their concentration and increase their resilience and willpower.

Third, “Researchers have suggested that school breakfast programs targeted exclusively at low-income students often suffer from limited participation because of the stigma attached: Students who eat them are forced to essentially admit their families’ limited resources. In some places, this has been addressed by making subsidized meals universally available.” When everyone can eat, no one feels out of place.

Finally, “the classroom has become a dining room as more children attending public schools live in poverty. More than half of students in public schools—51 percent—were in low-income families in 2013, according to a study by the Southern Education Foundation.

The number of low-income children in public schools has been persistent and steadily rising over the past several decades. In 1989, 32 percent of children in public schools lived in poverty, the foundation says.”

Students poised for academic success fuel their minds and bodies with nutritious meals every day—not just on test days. The Community Eligibility Provision, created by the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 and now available nationwide, enables high-poverty schools to offer all of their students a free and nutritious breakfast and lunch each school day. Now is the time to see if your school district could benefit from this remarkable opportunity in the 2015–2016 school year.

Thousands of schools—more than 14,000 in fact—and more than 6.5 million students are seeing the educational and health benefits of community eligibility. Offering free breakfast and lunch to the entire student body transforms the school culture, allowing students to enjoy school meals without feeling stigmatized. Schools that implement community eligibility see participation in both breakfast and lunch increase, which means that more children have the energy they need to learn throughout the day.

Community eligibility also benefits schools by reducing administrative burdens. School meal applications are not collected, which reduces administrative costs and frees up staff time. Additionally, increased meal participation allows schools to take advantage of economies of scale resulting in lower cost per meal. Offering meals free to all students also means that schools don’t have to try to collect unpaid fees or cover the cost of meals when families struggle to pay.

To take advantage of this incredible opportunity, keep these dates in mind:

  • Today: Start a conversation about whether or not community eligibility is the right choice for your school or school district. For more information on the provision, check out the Food Research and Action Center’s Community Eligibility Resource. Find out which schools and districts in your state have implemented community eligibility or were eligible for the 2014–2015 school year using the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Community Eligibility Database. Use this model presentation to inform others.
  • May 1, 2015: Each state agency will publish a list of schools and school districts that qualify for community eligibility. Review the list to see which local schools qualify.
  • August 31, 2015: To implement the provision for school year 2015–2016, make sure your school district submits an application no later than August 31, 2015.

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