The federal official in charge of national nutrition programs was in Springfield, Massachusetts Friday to see a unique effort that has dramatically increased the number of children who start the school day with a nutritious breakfast.
When 2,000 students stream through the doors of Central High School every morning just after 7, breakfast is waiting for them – right in their first period homeroom.
Freshman Nicholas Metzger is one of hundreds of students at Central whose eating habits have changed since the school introduced the Breakfast in the Classroom program last November.
" I did not eat breakfast before Breakfast in the Classroom started, but now that I don't have to go out of my way, or get here earlier, I do," Metzger explained.
The Springfield high school is the only one in Massachusetts, and one of only a few in the country, that offers students breakfast every day in their classroom. Timothy Gray, the district’s food service administrator, says only 25 percent of Central students ate breakfast when it was available just in the cafeteria; now almost 90 percent of the students are eating breakfast.
"It just kick starts the day for these kids," said Gray. " Everything revolves around breakfast. There are less trips to the nurses office at 10 in the morning because kids are hungry. Attention spans are better."
Because of the city’s high poverty rate, all 29,000 Springfield public school students are eligible for free breakfast and lunch. The district began offering breakfast in the classrooms at some elementary schools a few years ago as a pilot program. There were questions if it could be done in a high school because of the logistics involved.
Michael Wolcott, executive chef for Sodexo, the district's food service contractor described the daily breakfast preparation and delivery as " well organized chaos."
He said the Central High cafeteria staff begins arriving at 4:30 a.m. to put that day’s breakfast selections into insulated bags that are delivered to 110 classrooms by 7 a.m. The actual cooking, baking, and prep work, such as slicing fresh fruit, is done the day before.
" Two-three times a week we have a breakfast sandwich, or pancakes. If the kid does not want the hot option they can always take cereal," explained Wolcott.
The daily breakfast options also include juice, yogurt, granola, and milk.
U.S. Department of Agriculture Administrator Audrey Rowe, who oversees the government’s $1.2 billion national nutrition programs, toured the kitchen and cafeteria at Central and visited with students in two classrooms as they enjoyed their breakfast Friday.
"Everybody was eating everything on their plate," she observed. " I am impressed with what they are doing here."
Rowe said she would encourage other school districts to consider breakfast in the classroom, or some other “grab and go” option.
" It is a heavy lift for principals who have to think about what it means for the academic time they have in the classrooms. Custodians get concerned about what it means for the cleanup. So, it takes a lot of organization," said Rowe.
Principal Thaddeus Tokarz said the breakfast in the classroom program at Central has helped improve attendance and reduce tardiness.
Springfield Superintendent of Schools Dan Warwick said there is a plan to expand the breakfast in the classroom program to all of the city’s schools in three years. He said increasing the number of children who eat breakfast every day should help the district close achievement gaps and improve overall academic performance.
" The research is very solid. The state is pushing it," said Warwick.
Springfield received $18 million from the USDA to pay for school nutrition programs this year.