NEA Foundation Partnership Assists Grand Island Breakfast Program
With nearly 40 years of teaching experience on her resume, Jill Klingman has a clear understanding of what works for kids.
So when she was asked about how the Breakfast in the Classroom program works for students at Grand Island’s Walnut Middle School, Klingman did not hesitate.
Standing in her science classroom as a dozen students started their day with cereal, juice, fruit and other options, she said “I think this is the best thing that has happened to education.
“All children have a chance to get a free breakfast,” she said. “They come in, they get to eat, it’s very relaxed, they have time to digest and it starts their day off great.”
Klingman’s accolades come as a Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom (PBIC) grant has broadened the breakfast program for 2,500 students at nearby Grand Island Senior High School (GISH) this year.
The grant of just more than $112,000 enabled the purchase of a new walk-in freezer, milk coolers, mobile food warmers, breakfast carts, checkout laptops, and dozens of pans, racks and other materials. GISH is the first school in Nebraska to be awarded a PBIC grant.
The National Education Association Foundation is an active member of the PBIC coalition, and NSEA assisted with the grant process. Nebraska Appleseed promotes the PBIC program in the state. Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom is sponsored by Walmart.
Before receiving the grant, about 5 percent of the 2,500 students at GISH took advantage of free breakfast before school opened each day, said Kris Spellman, director of nutrition services for the district.
Eight months after the Breakfast in the Classroom program began at the high school, about 30 percent of students take breakfast, each student passing through one of four food lines around the building.
“That’s a huge increase in participation, but there are still more kids that we are looking to serve,” said Spellman.
Dampening Peer Pressure
The participation numbers have been much higher at Walnut Middle School, less than a mile from GISH. That is because, since Day 1, Principal Rod Foley’s vision was to have every student walk through the breakfast line.
“I was concerned about the peer pressure of taking the breakfast, and I saw it on the very first day,” he said.
On that opening day, Foley said a group of boys were in the breakfast line only “because they had to be.” Foley could tell that one boy was interested in eating, but didn’t take anything. The boy walked through the breakfast line empty-handed, and a few moments later his buddies walked off.
“He came back and said ‘Hey, can I get back in line? I really want breakfast,’” said Foley. He gave immediate approval.
That incident validated Foley’s vision to remove all stigma from breakfast program participation. Soon after the program opened, Foley encouraged staff to eat breakfast at school alongside students. Once they saw educators going through the line, student participation grew even more.
Before Foley instituted the mandatory walk through the line, about 5 percent of Walnut students took breakfast. Today, that number has hit 70 percent.
“After about two weeks, what we saw was our increase in students participating skyrocketed,” said Foley. “It wasn’t new and there was no stigma because everybody had to go through the line. The kids who needed to eat and wanted to eat were able to do that.”
Initially, some staff expressed concerns about bringing breakfast into classrooms: Would instructional time be lost? How would they handle spills and cleaning up after breakfast was done? Could it happen quickly enough to get to learning?
“There was a little push back as a few teachers were concerned,” said Foley. “But once we got the procedure down, it was easy.”
Klingman is a cheerleader for the program. She said eating breakfast in the classroom has caused few disruptions, and once the procedures were set it has worked “phenomenally.”
Phenomenal might be an understatement. Walnut’s 780 students enter the building and begin going through one of three breakfast lines at 8:02 a.m. Thirteen minutes later, they are in their classrooms eating as daily announcements are read over the intercom. Teachers begin engaging students in the day’s work, they say the Pledge of Allegiance, wrap up breakfast, clean off tables and are ready for the day.
Program benefits have far outweighed the minor issues encountered, said Klingman. No matter the economic status of their families, she said middle school students don’t always take time for breakfast.
“Middle schoolers have a lot of hunger issues, not just based on what is at home and what is not at home,” Klingman said.
“But they have a chance to come and eat, and they get two meals at school, breakfast plus lunch, and it just sets them up to learn,” she said.
“We all know proper nutrition is so important for our middle schoolers – and for our elementary and high schoolers, too. But it is so important that they are not hungry, because if they are hungry they can’t concentrate.”
Klingman has brings snacks and stores them in her room for hunger emergencies.
Across the hallway from Klingman is 21st century literacy teacher Jill Kimbrough. Like Klingman, Kimbrough said the breakfast offering is of great benefit to Walnut students.
“They maybe didn’t have supper last night, or didn’t get breakfast this morning,” she said. “So, I think it is a great opportunity to start the day off on the right foot.”
She said students who are thinking about hunger don’t learn.
“They can focus on their learning instead of ‘when am I going to eat my next lunch,’” said Kimbrough.
Spellman said the program is a win for everyone. The school district gets federal reimbursement for meals served, students are nourished, satisfied and ready to go.
“The staff wins because the kids are ready to learn,” she said.
Klingman said she would encourage every school district to investigate expanded breakfast options.
“It is a wonderful opportunity. The students are able to eat and talk with their friends, there are no discipline issues,” she said. “They eat, clean up and then we get on with business.”
Foley had two pieces of advice for interested school districts.
“Number one,” he said, “make everybody go through the line.
“The other part is don’t be scared to do it. We instantly saw an increase in attendance. Kids were here because they wanted breakfast. That itself is a huge piece of advice.”
Does Foley ever see Walnut changing the “all in the line” approach? Probably not.
“It has become part of what we do,” he said.