Pathways to Excellence in School Food: Improving Participation in the Breakfast Meal Program

August 27, 2013

Improving school breakfast participation, with an eye on the budget.

School food programs across the country are trying to reinvent themselves in response to the critical health needs of students. Over the past year, Healthy Schools Campaign has been working with the Chicago Public Schools to develop a comprehensive plan to achieve excellence in their school meal program. This plan centers around 10 interconnected pathways that are critical to success of every school food program.

This week, we highlight efforts relating to improving breakfast participation and finances of school meal programs. Learn more about the 10 pathways to excellence in school food and to read about Chicago Public Schools’ action plans for achieving excellence in school nutrition.

Like many educators, Ricardo Trujillo, principal of Roosevelt High School, on Chicago’s Northwest Side, understands the importance of giving students a healthy start to the day. So he approached CPS about starting a universal Grab & Go breakfast program at Roosevelt because he knew it would be beneficial for his students, 94 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced-priced meals.

Serving breakfast at the start of the school day rather than before school allows more students to eat breakfast, the most important meal of the day. The results were almost immediate. When breakfast was offered in the cafeteria before school, only 60 to 70 students ate breakfast every day. Once a Grab & Go breakfast was offered at the beginning of school, participation grew exponentially, with 300 students participating on the first day. Now, Roosevelt averages around 500 students eating breakfast at school every day, or about a third of the student body.

In addition to the impressive spike in numbers, Trujillo says he has noticed positive shifts in student behavior and overall school culture thanks to increased participation in the breakfast program.

Programs that increase breakfast participation among high school students have multiple benefits. First, and most importantly, they provide high school students, a group unlikely to have eaten breakfast at home, with a healthy breakfast. Studies show that eating breakfast is directly related to higher academic achievement.

Providing students with breakfast at school encourages the development of this important habit. Secondly, increasing student participation in the meal program supports the financial health of the overall school food program. “We have a group of students that arrive at school to spend time with their friends and eat breakfast,” Trujillo says. “We see a lot of cultural value that happens in that meal-sharing.”

As you learn in any business class, economies of scale are important to improving the financial performance of any program. This is also true for the school meal program where increasing the number of meals served decreases the cost of each meal since you are spreading the fixed costs over more meals served. Encouraging more students to eat breakfast is a win-win, serving nutritious meals to more students while improving the overall finances of the school meal program.