Breakfast Moves To Class

Melissa Bailey PhotoIn 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

Post a Comment

Commenting has closed for this entry


posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on April 17, 2012  9:48am

Less carbs, more protein and a bit more fat, would be better.  Cut down the cereal (especially sugared cereal), use 2% milk instead of 1%, include yoghurt, string cheese, and hard-boiled eggs.  The whole “fat is bad, carbs are good” movement in the 1980s is what led to the obesity epidemic in the first place.

posted by: HhE on April 17, 2012  12:12pm

If not perfect, this is certainly brilliant.  Well done.

posted by: streever on April 17, 2012  12:21pm

Great intentions, but I’m with Gretchen.

The child pictured is consuming 45 grams of sugar,  roughly 300 mg of salt, 15 g of protein, and almost 2 grams of saturated fat.

The American Heart Association recommends TWELVE grams of sugar per day. So, this healthy start has almost 4 times the sugar a child should eat in a full day.

1% milk is a joke: regular milk has only 3% fat. It is a marketing ploy which feeds into American obsessions with fat, body image, and “healthy” living. “I can eat a cheeseburger because I drink diet soda/low-fat milk”, etc.

The ingredient list for this “meal” is scary.

Juicing fruit removes all the components that cause your body to slowly digest and absorb the nutrients. Drinking juice is essentially drinking soda. While federal regulations may make it easy, you aren’t going to find a dietitian who recommends juice replace actual fruits and vegetables.

Is it really so hard to buy oranges/apples?

What about vegetables?

It worries me that the NHPS system gets so much positive attendance for meals that sound horrifying.

The recent changes to the lunch room were a promising start, but there has not been enough ongoing substantial improvement judging from this and other articles.

Add up all of the ingredients in the cereal and other components and tell me that it isn’t a little alarming that 40 separate items composed a very basic meal with very little nutritional variety.

Ask yourself: do you think children should consume 4x the recommended sugar per day for their first meal?

posted by: HhE on April 17, 2012  2:02pm

I stand corrected, streever.  Thanks.

The contents are wrong, but the basic idea for school breakfast in the classroom is good.  Where is Jamie Oliver when we need him?

posted by: streever on April 17, 2012  2:52pm

Sorry Hhe, the schedule of typing & posting (I posted that when I could only see Gretchen’s post) made it so it appears I was countering you: not at all. If I had seen your comment, I would have acknowledged that you are correct (this is a good direction), but that the program needs some real improvements.

I rarely find anything to disagree with in your commentary, and I’m sorry it appears that I’m countering you!

posted by: alia on April 17, 2012  3:07pm

I guess the censors at NHI feel it’s blasphemous to question why these kids aren’t being fed by (gasp!) their parents and why the goal is to keep parents who want to feed their kids from doing so.

posted by: HhE on April 17, 2012  4:25pm

Streever, no need at all to apologize.  I think your analysis is very good—better than mine.

I will thank you for the praise just the same.

NHI sensors or no, I think I take your meaning alia.  (Some of the things they have edited of mine leaving me wondering as much as stuff that has gotten through, including some of own posts.)

As a former teacher who believes in personal responsibility, I am naturally inclined to ask the same question.  The answer varies.  Some parents cannot feed their children.  Some parents cannot be bothered.  I do opine that State programs encourage a lack of responsibility, and this causes me great distress.  However, at the end of the day, research shows that children who have breakfast do better than children who do not, and the closers that breakfast is to the start time of the school day, the better.

This means that even well to do schools can improve student performance be providing (appropriate) food at the start of the day.

posted by: New Haven School Food on April 17, 2012  4:40pm

Thanks to NHI for covering the program at Wexler and for shedding light on the critically important issues of healthy eating for Urban School Children.  We agree with some of the concerns mentioned in the comments.  No one in the New Haven School Food Program has any desire but to put forth the best meals possible for our students.  However, this is a highly regulated area and we are bound by USDA guidelines since our funding stream is through the federal school meal programs.  We too would like to see less sugary cereals, the elimination of fruit juice and higher fat varieties of milk, but there are several issues.  In fact, since the Food Service Program was brought back in house we have made major shifts in the menus, purchasing decisions, and preparation in order to move away from processed foods.  We have brought back the recipe book as opposed to the can opener and perform scratch cooking for the bulk of our lunch service.  We have aggressively pursued grants and support in order to put salad bars in virtually all schools loaded with fresh vegetables and local fare when possible.

Due to small windows of meal times and production costs, breakfast remains one of our biggest challenges.  We have served unsweetened cereals in our schools in the past (Cheerios, Shredded Wheat, Crisp-x and corn flakes) only to have the students throw them out. Not only are we battling obesity but also childhood hunger. Hunger and obesity go hand in hand in an urban setting and while it may seem that a laser-like focus on reductions of sugar and fats is a winning strategy, the fact is that balance of diet and consumption of the food are just as critical as the alternatives at the corner store or the fast food chain are far worse for our students.

The meals we serve meet all the federal requirements and in most cases exceed them.  The technical requirement for fruits and vegetables is to offer a variety weekly to include canned, dried, fresh and frozen. We limit the amount of canned fruit served to one day a week at lunch (the other 4 days are fresh, whole fruit). The only canned vegetables we serve are beets and garbanzo beans, both on our salad bars. We choose to use our salad bars as the (To be continued) 1/2

posted by: New Haven School Food on April 17, 2012  4:43pm

Through a grant from the National Institutes of Health and working with CARE and the Rudd Center we were able to welcome a registered dietitian to our staff and have begun nutrition and physical activity interventions in 9 schools while we continue to promote our district-wide wellness initiatives.

We have worked closely with Congresswoman DeLauro and the Obama Administration on many of our initiatives and have sought more funding for these valuable programs.  Step by step we are making New Haven School Food better each day.  We continue to listen to students and staff on ways to make it better and appreciate constructive feedback from parents as well.  Through the infusion of more nutrition supports and education we hope to continue our progress in the months and years to come as we continue to strive to make New Haven the model District in not only School Reform but School Food Reform.

Thanks to the support of Dr. Mayo, Will Clark, the Board of Education our Union staff and all of our Principals and students we are committed to pushing ourselves every day to get better and better and to serve the best meals we can for our most valued customers.

Timothy Cipriano
Executive Director of Food Services

Sarah Maver RD
School Wellness Dietitian

posted by: New Haven School Food on April 17, 2012  4:54pm

Part of the first comment was cut off…
We choose to use our salad bars as the vegetable credit for the day in lieu of using pizza sauce, marinara sauce, tater tots or other processed vegetables as an USDA approved vegetable. Under the regulations, we must offer a variety of milks everyday. These varieties can include skim (flavored or unflavored) and 1% (unflavored). We choose to be one of the only school districts that serves only unflavored milk to our students as one way to limit the amount of sugar consumed by the students daily.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on April 17, 2012  7:58pm

April 04, 2012

The EPA should strongly recommend that all school cafeterias go vegan.

posted by: Paul Wessel on April 17, 2012  9:54pm

Awesome comments from Tim and Sarah.  Our kids are lucky to have them working the back of the house.

posted by: streever on April 17, 2012  10:23pm

Thanks for the update, Tim & Sarah—sounds like a lot of good is being done. It would be great to see even more, but I’m sure it is difficult w/r/t federal food programs and mandates. Good luck.

posted by: Teachergal on April 18, 2012  7:05pm

So, as a veteran teacher who spent many years serving breakfast in the classroom I ask, ” who cleans up the mess?”  Really, no matter how hard you try kids spill milk, drop cereal bowls, leave wrappers all over, and because they are young children, they do not know how to clean up well. I know that non-teachers do not understand, but each minute is so valuable and teachers do not have time for this extra responsibility.

I’d love to hear from some teachers on this great idea!

posted by: Scott Esposito on April 20, 2012  10:21am


I believe kids should eat breakfast at home.  Instructional time is so precious and teachers are under pressure to adhere to the curriculum mandated by the district (including start and stop times).

As a Kindergarten teacher in New Haven (who often works without a paraprofessional and has 26 students) it is very difficult to make sure every child eats and is cleaned up by the time our curriculum is scheduled to begin.

Adding to the difficulty are students who don’t take the bus and arrive late almost daily. (Some of these students are missing major chunks of instruction, never mind breakfast.)

I think eating at home is the answer.  Either that or stricter policies for those consistently tardy.

posted by: Teachergal on April 20, 2012  11:13am

You are right but the fact remains that city children do not get breakfast at home for a variety of reasons, mostly due to poverty.

Tardiness is due to bussing. I would say that children who arrive late go directly to the cafeteria to eat before coming to class which is disruptive in itself. But again I don’t agree with eating in the classroom. Without classroom assistants it is impossible to manage breakfast, morning routines, transitions, and instruction.

What is so wrong with students eating breakfast in their beautiful, newly built cafeterias? I could hazard a guess but don’t want to ruffle feathers so early in the day.