In the first month of a new experiment inside a Dixwell school, the number of kids eating breakfast shot up by 75 percent—a swift change that officials hope will help students learn math and read books.
The eating took place at Wexler/Grant School, which serves 378 kids in grades pre-K to 8 at 55 Foote St. The school, which is in the first year of a turnaround effort designed to boost failing test scores and improve the school climate, is now home to the experiment in childhood nutrition.
On March 5, as kids began their annual high-stakes standardized tests, they tried out a new way of fueling up for the day.
They grabbed a morning meal not in the school cafeteria, as was their routine, but in the classroom. In doing so, they followed the latest thinking in school meals, which concerns not just what kids eat but where.
Studies show when kids are offered meals in the classroom, “they’re more likely to eat it,” said Sarah Maver, school wellness dietitian for New Haven Public Schools.
The program aims to boost the number of kids who eat free breakfast every morning, said Maver. She said studies consistently show that when kids eat breakfast, their grades, test scores and attendance rise—as fewer kids go to the nurse for stomachaches.
“You just can’t say enough good things about increasing breakfasts,” Maver said.
“Breakfast skippers have greater struggles managing weight,” added Kathryn E. Henderson, director of school and community initiatives at Yale’s
Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.
Before the change, kids at Wexler/Grant had to go to the school cafeteria at 7:45 to grab a meal. The food is provided by the federal Free and Reduced-Price Lunch program, which offers meals based on income. To eliminate the stigma against poor students, New Haven offers free meals to all kids at all of its 31 elementary and middle schools.
In the first month in which kids started eating breakfast in their classrooms instead, the number of kids eating shot up. The average number of breakfasts consumed rose from 198 in February to 346 in March, according to Maver.
That means about 91 percent of kids are now eating breakfast, according to her data. (There are 407 kids in the school; about 94 percent show up each day.)
“We definitely are very happy” with the quick results, she said.
Different public schools handle breakfast in different ways. Some use the cafeteria; others, like Nathan Hale and the Amistad Academy charter school, hand out the food in class. The school district is shifting toward a standard policy where all kids would eat breakfast in class.
New Haven chose Wexler/Grant to pilot that change. The school was chosen because it has the highest rate of homeless kids in the district. It also had one of the district’s lowest rates of breakfast consumption, at 56 percent, Maver said.
The district applied for a state grant to boost that figure to 70 percent. The district last month won a $7,020 grant to launch an in-classroom breakfast pilot program at the school.
The grant will pay for three carts that will deliver hot breakfasts to kids two times a week for the rest of the school year. Another $570 will be spent on promotional materials, Maver said.
The hot food carts have not yet been purchased, so the school is serving cold breakfasts for now.
At 7:30 a.m. Thursday, teacher Michele Vaiuso arrived at her class and picked up a box of plastic-wrapped breakfast packages prepared by Lindley Food Service Corp.
She distributed them to the 25 kids who arrived to class on time. The kids had 15 minutes to eat the meal. Following federal guidelines, the meal always has milk, whole-grain cereal, juice and graham crackers or muffins, according to Maver.
On Thursday, it included: a half-pint of Marcus 1 percent milk, a 4-ounce carton of apple juice, and a box of Frosted Mini-Wheats. Vaiuso also distributed 120-calorie packages of baked Keebler Scooby-Doo graham crackers (pictured in Alisa Mack’s hands).
The meal isn’t perfect, dietitian Maver acknowledged. Even juice with no sugar added can contribute to childhood obesity because it’s high in natural sugars.
“We agree that we’d rather use less juice,” Maver said, but “you need to have a fruit component,” and juice is an inexpensive way to satisfy that federal requirement. The district loses money on the free lunch program because it provides meals to all kids, not just those who qualify for the federal subsidy. She said the juice is kept to 4-ounce portions to limit sugar intake.
The juice proved popular with Vaiuso’s students, who chatted between sips through straws.
When kids ate in the cafeteria, Vaiuso didn’t get to track who ate what. Now she notices who eats, and encourages them to do so. She said she is already noticing a difference in her kids. One used to come to school hungry, she said.
“He used to have his head down and be sleepy,” she recalled. With the daily meal, he seems more alert.
Another kid didn’t eat much as he started out. But now, sitting across from strong eaters like Alisa and Jameyah, he has started to make more headway. On Thursday, she noticed him open his carton of milk.
Before the mealtime change-up, kids who were late to school would often miss the meal, Vaiuso said.
“If they weren’t in the caf, they couldn’t eat,” she said. Now she sets aside an extra meal for kids who come in late.
“I know that some of the kids don’t eat at home,” she said.
Every day, Vaiuso now tracks the number of kids who eat breakfast. She reserved a meal for a late-comer Thursday, bringing the tally to a proud 26 of 26.
At 8 a.m., Vaiuso rounded up the kids to send them to gym class.
She set aside one slow eater’s unfinished bowl of cereal so she could fortify herself for the morning ahead, which called for reading and practicing multiplication.
In the hallway, Principal Sabrina Breland pronounced the new routine “wonderful.” Besides feeding more kids, she said, it “helps with a smoother arrival” to school.
The program aims to help the city’s school reform drive, which aims to boost test scores and cut the high school dropout rate, and make sure every kid can go to college, noted schools Chief Operating Officer Will Clark.
To reach those goals, Clark said, “we must educate and support the whole child.”
Maver said the program’s early success merits replication in other schools.
“We want as many schools to switch to in-classroom breakfast as we can.”
Past Independent stories on Wexler/Grant:
• Turnaround 101 Draws From Ivy Halls
• Pressure’s On As “CMT Olympics” Begin
• TFA Teacher Hits Stride—& May Leave Town
• A K-8 “Turnaround” Enlists Hillhouse Seniors
• At “Turnaround,” Half The Teachers Will Stay