Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Breakfast

In response to the wide variety of reactions I've heard from parents, teachers, and kids to the Breakfast in the Classroom program that's been phased into Providence Public School Elementary classrooms this year, I wrote "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Breakfast" for July's East Side Monthly, which has hit the streets but isn't yet online. Here's a slightly longer version of the piece that's in ESM.

To get connected to the Providence Schools Nutrition Advisory Group that's being convened by Kids First for conversation and action about the challenges and opportunities of school food and nutrition, see the next post, and please share in the comments.


Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Breakfast

Every morning just before we head off for school, my three bleary-eyed and crazy-haired sons eat breakfast: yogurt, cereal, milk, a bagel, waffles. On a really good day, a piece of fruit.

Every morning just after the school bell rings, teachers unzip coolers, one with milk and juice and the other with food: muffins, yogurt in a tube, cereal bars, or pancakes that are served in a bag at room temperature. All food is sealed up in plastic bags, unless it’s in a tube.

During breakfast at home, we multitask. Who has a baseball game? Is that book report in your homework folder? Yes, I am going to comb your hair! Sit still for a second, you monkey. We make lunches, sign permission slips, scan fliers fished out of backpacks. They fight over the sports section. They eat. We leave.

During breakfast in the classroom, teachers and kids multitask . They take attendance, collect homework, listen to P.A. announcements. Breakfast in the classroom is available for all. Most kids eat what’s provided with little hands-on help from teachers. They throw away wrappers, wipe up spills, and grab the broom from the corner of the classroom to deal with errant muffin crumbs. Within ten minutes, the school day continues.

Breakfast at home happens because someone is on hand to wake the children, find the cream cheese buried in the fridge, and otherwise expedite kids through their morning and out the door. Our family represents what is possible but not necessarily what is typical. We have resources and systems that provide enough time, money, and clarity to shop for food, roust the kids from bed, and ensure that they are passably clean, dressed, and ready to roll. Some days, despite our best intentions and favorable conditions, the whole circus of our morning routine disintegrates. One kid or another abandons breakfast in favor of last-minute homework completion, a lost shoe, or a temper tantrum. That kid is hungry until lunch, or was, before the breakfast in the classroom option.

According to Rhode Island Kids Count, before Providence’s breakfast in the classroom program began in 2011, 34 percent of the city’s low-income children participated in the universal breakfast program. Eighty-eight percent of Providence Public Schools’ students qualify for free or reduced price lunch. While some of those children may eat breakfast at home or en route to school, many do not. Unless they ate breakfast when they arrived at school, those kids were hungry until lunch.

Prior to the breakfast in the classroom program, Providence Public Schools already provided universal breakfast—free breakfast for every student without regard to the financial status of that child’s family. Most schools served it in the cafeteria before the school day started. Kids had to get there early enough to grab some breakfast, and they had to be hungry and focused enough to eat it in the same space where all of their friends were running around, playing, gossiping, and blowing off steam before the school day started. Late to school? No breakfast. Distracted? No breakfast. Though everyone theoretically could have breakfast, not enough kids actually did.

Hundreds of low-income urban communities nationwide are implementing the breakfast in the classroom program. Food manufacturers produce items for the program that meet state nutrition standards. More food eaten means more food purchased. Follow the money, if you’re so inclined. Of course, you can also follow the money trail left by the box of Cheerios in our kitchen cupboard.

Kate Keizler, parent, Vartan Gregorian Elementary School at Fox Point: “When I look at the breakfast in the classroom program, I see students who have what they need to take command of their morning, and that sets the tone for them to feel in control for the rest of the day. I see a society that is committed to making sure that kids get what they need to be ready to learn and enjoy school.”

Kathy Sullivan, third grade teacher at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School: “I think that the breakfast in the classroom program is a good thing because more kids actually eat breakfast, and it doesn’t really take up any extra time at the start of the day. That part is easy. But it’s not right to say that it doesn’t require extra time during the day. The kids are having an extra drink, and that means an extra bathroom trip later in the morning. We don’t have that kind of time. Kids can’t miss ten minutes of the most important teaching time of the day.”

If kids are going to earn the NECAP scores needed to demonstrate that they are learning at the pace the state has set for them, they need both that breakfast and that extra bathroom break. Somehow, we need to find a little breathing room.

Ellen Santaniello, parent of a second grader at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School: “I worry that our kids are being required to take mostly highly processed, sugary food at 9:00am. For my kid, this is like being given drugs. Since this program began, her lunchbox comes home nearly full, she is frantically hungry at 3:00pm, and both her teachers and I have noticed a decrease in focus and self control. I felt I had no choice but to tell her teacher that she can't participate, but now she feels isolated and ostracized while the other kids eat. Does anyone know what, if any, choice we have here?”

Does the choice really need to be between no breakfast at all and an industrially produced breakfast in a bag? What would it take to create other options?


  1. I can't tell you how much I have thought about this, and thank you for writing about it. I would like to address what options we have for healthier food, I have asked my kids not to eat it, but my son does anyway. He feels a part of something and gets to eat food he never would otherwise.

    I don't want to ever say I don't think we should provide these children with food, I just want to provide them with the right kind of food to foster their learning, growing, breathing, bodies.

    And I'm happy for the pee break, this kids need so much more breathing space. That alone would change the way and how much they learn.

  2. I am 100% with Hannah, and my son was eating it as well even though we told him he was not supposed to. Unfortunately we (Hannah and I) are 2 of the 3 parents that complained at our school. The idea of breakfast is great, but presyruped waffles, apple dumplings, and pink milk are not the answer. We are moving from Providence, and this is actually plays a large part in that decision.