Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Breakfast in the Classroom, D.C. Style

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

With no fanfare at all, schools in the District of Columbia have been rolling out a program of serving breakfast in classrooms instead of in cafeterias. The idea was piloted in a single elementary school at the beginning of the year. In April it was extended to 11 more schools. Last week, six more were added including my daughter's school, H.D. Cooke. More are slated to come on line beginning today.

Originally scheduled to begin on Monday, but then postponed, our new breakfast program started in earnest on Wednesday when we arrived at school to find the cafeteria closed. No more kids waiting in line for trays of hot food or cereal and milk, juice and Goldfish Grahams. Instead, food was packed into insulated bags and carried to the classrooms. My daughter reported that on the first day kids had a choice of a hot meal--pancakes and syrup--or a cold meal--cereal and milk. I had hoped to sit in as an observer and take pictures, but so far, I have not gotten a response from the chancellor's office to my request for a clearance.

Instead, I rely on reports from parents who have been sitting in on classroom breakfast. Here's one:

"The breakfast is delivered to the classrooms in those blue insulated bags that they've always used to deliver the fruit/vegetable snacks," this parent wrote in an e-mail. "On Wednesday, day 1, the bags brought to [name of student]'s preschool class contained flavored milks, so not surprisingly, several kids were having their sugary Cinnamon Toast Crunch with chocolate milk. By day 2 the flavored milk had disappeared -- I'm not sure why, but I know the preschool teachers don't let the kids have flavored milk for lunch except on Fridays, so maybe they told whomever to only send white milk for breakfast.

"Day 2's choices were Honey Nut Cheerios or a warm pizza bagel half in a bag, plus an orange. Today it was a sugarfest: Cinnamon Toast Crunch or Frosted Pop Tarts, each accompanied by a differed kind of cookie (regular graham crackers or those fish-shaped ones). Fruit was a whole pear.

"For the most part the fruit did not get touched and in theory would have to go in the trash, because it was already "served." Same goes for the undrunken milk. I told [name of teacher] that I was appalled by the waste...Aargh!"

My daughter, who is in the fourth grade, also reported that by Friday there was no more hot food being offered in the classroom and that only plain milk was being served.

Food access advocates have been pressing for breakfast service in classrooms as a way of ensuring that needy kids are fed at the beginning of the day, before classes begin. Breakfast is universally free for the 45,000 students who attend D.C. Public Schools. Under "Healthy Schools" legislation recently passed by the D.C. Council, the city would extend free breakfast service to another 25,000 students who attend charter schools by providing an additional 30 cents for each breakfast served to students who qualify for reduced-price meals based on income.

"Healthy Schools" also includes an additional 10 cents per meal to help pay for breakfast, in addition to federal subsidies of up to $1.46 for students who qualify for a free meal.

Because schools receive federal subsidy payments for breakfast as well as lunch, districts with high percentages of needy students can generate a lot of money by serving breakfast to a captive audience in the classroom, rather than waiting for kids to show up in the cafeteria. In Berkeley, CA, for instance, participation in breakfast exploded, from 9 percent district-wide to 61 percent after classroom breakfast was implements. Participation in elementary and middle schools stands at a whopping 96 percent, and means that income from breakfast helps pay for a pricier lunch made from scratch with fresh ingredients.

But a key to the Berkeley success story is keeping breakfast simple. Small packets of cereal alternate with bagels and cream cheese, juice with plain milk, and typically a piece of fresh fruit, such as an apple, is served. That's it. If D.C. schools follow suit, then we could see the end of hot breakfasts consisting of things like scrambled eggs pre-cooked and shipped frozen from Minnesota, pizza bagels, and frozen egg-and-sausage quesadillas. It would only be a short step from there to phasing out sugary processed treats such as Pop-Tarts and Goldfish Grahams, and eliminating all the sugar kids are consuming with their chocolate and strawberry milk, typically served with juice as well.

Indeed, breakfast in the classroom, done correctly, could be a big win for everybody: healthier food for the kids, more money for school meal programs and less waste for the landfill.


  1. Ed, Do you know which schools will be coming online next?

  2. Browne, Burrville, Davis, Kenilworth, Plummer, Thomas, Emery, Hendley, Houston, King, Ferebee-Hope, and Smothers.

  3. Those preschool teachers are smart. ;)
    We know what happens when you feed those little ones a lot of sugar and then an hour after the crazy time they crash. No learning for them.

  4. Ed...thank you again for your civic journalism. I enjoy reading your posts. I cringe as I count the number of chemical sugary items that the kids ingest impacting their learning capacity, brain and body development. You work gives us transparency on the system. Much needed!