School nutrition experts have long touted the benefits of student breakfast programs, but some have found that breakfast-in-the-classroom models can be a tough sell to principals and other district officials.
Such programs now are generating some data, supporting the position that breakfast-in-the-classroom models may produce academic benefits and have a positive affect on district’s bottom lines, even bailing out less-financially lucrative student-meal programs.
“We can actually have an increase in participation in breakfast to offset lunch,” Jon Dickl, school nutrition director for Knox County Public Schools in Tennessee, told listeners during a recent webinar hosted by the School Nutrition Association’s School Nutrition Foundation. “Breakfast can provide a great opportunity for us to have growth when maybe lunch is a little stagnant.”
In 2010, 1 in 10 students in Knoxville took advantage of breakfast at school, but that increased to 1 in 4 by 2012, with the classroom program in effect. At one school, participation increased by 65.5%, and while per-meal revenues dropped by 10 cents, costs per meal dropped by 27 cents and annual profitability increased by more than $15,000.
Registered dietitian Julie Boettger, director of Food and Nutrition Services for schools in Hammond, Ind., told webinar attendees that an elementary-school program featuring a grab-and-go breakfast eaten in the classroom increased student participation from 47% to 66%. It reduced labor costs by 2 percentage points and daily revenue per student increased from $3.43 to $3.80.
Boettger said while she cannot make a direct correlation, following the introduction of the breakfast-in-the-classroom program, the school had the highest reading scores in the district.
At the middle school level, a similar grab-and-go program using breakfast carts increased student participation from 15% to 55%.
Boettger said successful programs need buy-in from many stakeholders, from principals to teachers and their unions to custodians.
She recommended school nutrition officials track current student meal program data for several months and be able to provide stakeholders with estimated food and labor costs, both one-time expenditures related to start-up and ongoing expenses.
“If you are running in the red, in terms of our labor costs, expanding your breakfast program can be a valuable tool,” she said, adding that a program such as grab-and-go, which does not have substantial labor costs, can “change the financial position in a positive way.”
But the opposite can be true if food costs are high, so Boettger said it is important to plan a menu that stays on budget and to look at the best delivery methods to ensure the highest financial return.
“Sometimes you have to spend some money to make money, and I think sometimes school districts are hesitant to put that money up front to expand their breakfast program,” Boettger said.
Along with tracking direct meal expenses, she recommended school nutrition officials also gather several months of data on student tardiness, absenteeism, test scores, nurse visits and office referrals for comparison purposes once the breakfast in the classroom program has been in place for a while.