Breakfast in the Classroom in Chicago Public Schools: HSC’s Perspective

April 05, 2011

Here in Chicago, the hot topic in school food recently has been Breakfast in the Classroom — and more specifically, the recent decision by the Chicago Board of Education to provide Breakfast in the Classroom to students in all of the district’s elementary schools. This plan has generated both enthusiastic support and vocal opposition. HSC supports this new policy of bringing Breakfast in the Classroom to all CPS elementary schools.

HSC Perspective

While HSC’s work in Chicago has focused more on healthy school food — supporting the district in bringing more fresh produce, more whole grains, and other health-promoting changes to school meals — this policy is clearly in alignment with one of our core values, addressing health and education disparities. The policy has been overwhelmingly supported by the Parents United for Healthy Schools/Padres Unidos para Escuelas Saludables coalition, parents from many of Chicago’s African-American and Latino communities who have been working with us to promote healthy eating and physical activity in schools.

The evidence in support of breakfast is overwhelming. An emerging body of research documents the ways that breakfast consumption positively influences cognitive functioning, quality of overall diet, risk of being overweight, and emotional well-being. Research also shows that low-income minority students are more likely than their counterparts to miss breakfast.

With research linking breakfast to both health and academic outcomes — and with the documented disparity in breakfast habits — we believe that it is valuable for CPS to take steps to ensure that as many students as possible start their day with a healthy breakfast. 

Background and History of Breakfast in CPS

We’d like to share some background and history on the breakfast program.  CPS serves more than 400,000 students at 675 schools. More than 83 percent of the district’s students come from low-income families and many of these children are “food insecure” or to lack access to food on a regular basis.

Prior to Oct. 2007, CPS offered universal breakfast in the cafeteria before the start of the school day. This program had very low student participation, an experience consistent with other school districts across the country that offered breakfast in the cafeteria before school. In Oct. 2007, CPS began piloting a Breakfast in the Classroom program as a strategy for getting breakfast to more students. Over the next two years, 200 schools voluntarily adopted the Breakfast in the Classroom program, providing breakfast to about 40,000 grammar school students.

Beginning with the 2010 school year, CPS greatly improved the nutritional quality of breakfast when the district adopted the gold nutrition standard of the USDA’s HealthierUS School Challenge for all meals, and the Harvard School of Public Health’s breakfast recommendations.

In January of 2011, the CPS board adopted a policy requiring that all grammar schools implement breakfast in the classroom by the end of this school year.  As part of this new program, all students, regardless of income status, are offered a free breakfast. Students either pick up breakfast when they enter the school, or breakfast is delivered directly to the classroom. Students eat breakfast during the first 10 minutes of the school day while attendance is being taken, morning announcements are read, or other activities take place. (In some classrooms, a book is read or students read silently during breakfast.)

New Policy: Concerns and Benefits

Parent response to this new program has ranged from enthusiastic support to vocal opposition. Those parents who are opposed to the program have voiced concerns about breakfast cutting into the instructional time of an already-short school day; about possible exposures for children with food allergies; and about the potential for waste, both in terms of food and packaging. Additionally, questions about the financial model of the breakfast program have been raised by some.

To address several of these concerns: most schools have successfully implemented the breakfast program without interfering with instructional time, and CPS takes extensive precautions to address the needs of students with food allergies, including the ability to create peanut free schools, dairy free classrooms, or in some cases being flexible about where the breakfasts are eaten if the needs arise. All breakfasts are peanut-free. We know that many school districts (including Berkley, Denver and Washington, DC) have implemented similar programs without any reported problems for students with food allergies. To address the concerns about garbage: CPS is taking steps to minimize this impact by reducing packaging, using more recycled packaging and strengthening recycling programs.

To clarify the funding source: the breakfast program is funded by the federal government, and the direct cost of breakfast expansion is less than the revenue received.

Instructional Time: An Issue that Goes Beyond Breakfast

The concern about instructional time, we believe, is one that deserves a larger conversation. HSC is very aware that CPS has the shortest day of any large school district in the country. Incoming Mayor Emmanuel has made a public commitment to lengthening the school day.  HSC will be working with everyone — those who support the breakfast program, those who are opposed, and many others — to help make this a reality.

HSC believes that healthy students are better learners and that schools can play a vital role in addressing the health and education disparities that far too many students face. We commend CPS for taking steps to do so with its new Breakfast in the Classroom policy.