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Gazette Premium Content Breakfast program fills kids' tummies, improves test scores, boosts attention spans

By Carol McGraw Published: December 9, 2013

It is 8 a.m. at Calhan Elementary School and the students are in their classrooms, completing what teachers say is the most important part of the day.

This is not math or reading, but a lesson in healthy eating.

"I like these. They're good. It makes you healthy," 5-year-old Tommy Raines says as he polishes off a breakfast of milk, juice and a large cinnamon flavored protein cookie made with whole grains.

Tommy's kindergarten classmates are just as enthusiastic, eating everything on their paper towel that serves as a plate. The only complaint comes from a girl who doesn't want juice.

Many schools provide breakfast before school in the cafeterias. But Calhan School District RJ 1 serves free breakfast to every elementary student in their classrooms after the bell has sounded. Doing so makes all the difference in seeing that kids aren't hungry and are ready to learn, says Superintendent Linda Miller.

The district is a good example of how the new federally mandated state Breakfast After the Bell Nutrition Program that begins next fall will work. Schools must offer the breakfast after the school day begins if 70 percent or more of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. (The first year it is required of schools with 80 percent. The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and some limited funds come from the state.)

Calhan, whose free and reduced-price lunch rate is much lower, 40 percent, would not have been required to participate, but started the program two years ago. It is cited by groups such as Hunger Free Colorado as an example of how well such a program can work.

There are several Breakfast After the Bell options for schools. They can serve meals in the classroom when school starts, or after first or second period, during early recess, or provide grab and go of boxed breakfasts on buses or from carts that can be eaten in class or other areas.

At Calhan, elementary students eat in the classroom, and middle and high-schoolers eat in the cafeteria.

In making these breakfasts free to everyone there is no stigma attached to participation, school officials say.

Calhan teachers and administrators are thrilled with the results. Tardies have dropped 23 percent because kids want to get to school for breakfast. Test scores have improved, and so has the behavior and attention span of the kids, says Linda Slothower, Calhan elementary principal.

"I love it," says Heather Campbell, who teaches third grade. "The kids have more energy and are happy to come to school. They even want me to announce what they are going to have for breakfast the next day."

Science bears the benefits out. The Food Research and Action Center lists scores of studies that have found eating breakfast at school improves academics and behavior. In their literature, the policy center quotes J. Michael Murphy, professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, who says: "Significant new evidence has documented the link between eating breakfast and learning. Recent studies show that skipping breakfast is common among children in the United States . and is associated with quantifiable negative consequences for academic, cognition, health and mental health functioning."

In Colorado, 800,000 individuals, or one-fifth of the population is at risk of being food insecure or not having enough to eat. That includes 227,000 children. Those numbers are an 86 percent increase since 2002, notes Kathy Underhill, executive director of Hunger Free Colorado.

The Breakfast After the Bell program, funded by federal money, was adopted this year by the Legislature. Many schools have offered breakfasts before school, but there was a very low participation rate. "Many kids just didn't show up early for those meals," Underhill said.

An estimated 380 schools in the state will be required to participate.

In El Paso and Teller counties, about 40 schools have the student poverty levels to have a Breakfast After the Bell program, officials said, including some in Harrison School District 2, Colorado Springs School District 11, Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8, Widefield School District 3, and Ellicott School District 22.

Trevor Newton, a Calhan kindergarten teacher, says he has taught in other schools where "kids were ready to keel over from hunger by 10 a.m. You can't expect them to concentrate on math if they are concentrating on their empty stomachs."

He notices the difference in those who have breakfast and those who don't. "Our kids are very alert, and their test scores are up significantly."

Deb Yirku, Calhan food services director, noted that when they changed to serving Breakfast After the Bell, the numbers jumped to about 350 kids. Before that, they were lucky to get 50 kids in the cafeteria before school. "We were competing with before school recess. Kids would not come in to eat, or they got here late," she explains.

This made for some pretty hungry kids, particularly because many got up as early as 5 a.m. and spent an hour on buses getting to school. "Even those who ate at home are hungry," she said. "For them this a midmorning snack."

The program has evolved. Before the fall of 2011, the district served breakfast before school. It didn't worked so well, so that the next year they had breakfast after the school bell, but in the cafeteria. Last school year, it began serving in the elementary classrooms.

Small rural schools will be exempt from the breakfast requirements because officials voiced concern in hearings about logistics and expenses, Underhill says. "This is a problem. Many impoverished students live in rural areas."

But rural districts have limited resources. Some have older kitchens, some have only one kitchen so it's impossible to serve schools spread out geographically. Others don't have the money to pay extra staff.

Calhan has been able to make it all work without straining the budget.

"If I can keep the meals to 60 to 90 cents per child and stay in the nutritional guidelines. I can provide all children with free meals," Yirku said. "It's tight and I track everything each month."

The district received a $3,000 grant from Colorado No Kid Hungry to purchase a second industrial stove. The organization has provided $110,000 in breakfast expansion grants to schools across Colorado this year.

Yirku explains that instead of hiring more staff, she uses volunteer high school students who get work experience and class credit to help out in the kitchen and deliver the meals to the classrooms.

Calhan senior Devin Duncan, one of the servers, says, "I like it. It's easier than other classes. It's fun. The little kids love to see us show up with their breakfast."

Another cost saver is serving the meals on paper towels, rather that doing dishes or spending a lot for paper plates, Yirku notes. Paying close attention to recipes and menus can save money, too.

Under Colorado Department of Education guidelines, the meals must include two ounces of grain, a half cup of fruit, and milk, or an ounce of whole grains and an ounce of protein.

Yirku is a stickler for healthy eating. She stays away from foods with salt and preservatives, and make most of the breakfast items using whole grains and other nutritious ingredients.

Everyone seems to like the food.

Serving meals in the classrooms is a key to the program's success. "Kids learn better when they have something in their tummies. And in the classroom they are a captive audience and more apt to eat," Yirku says.

No one is forced or cajoled into eating. If students don't finish meals, they can put it in the fridge and have it for an afternoon snack. But that doesn't happen a lot. Nor is much thrown away as in some food programs. The menus include dishes such as waffles, cinnamon rolls with cereal, French toast hammies, smoothies, pancakes on a stick (batter dipped sausage) and breakfast pizza. All are served with fruit and milk.

"The only request of our elementary teachers is that there be no cereal. It's too messy and the little kids spill it," Yirku says with a laugh.

Teachers have class discussions on the importance of eating breakfast, and the students have taken the lessons to heart.

"They give us the food we need to help us think," says Parker Burch, a third-grader. "I don't feel hungry."

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Contact Carol McGraw: 636-0371. Twitter @mcgrawatgazette Facebook: Carol McGraw

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