Ramping up school breakfast as new law deadline approaches

With about seven months to go before schools must implement Colorado’s new “Breakfast After the Bell” law, many school nutrition directors are busy planning and piloting free breakfast programs that ultimately will feed tens of thousands more children each school day.

On one hand, it’s an opportunity to ensure more students, particularly those from low-income families, start the day well fed and ready to learn. However, the new law also comes with formidable logistical and financial challenges for district staff, who will be expected to prepare, deliver and track up to four times more morning meals than they have previously, with no additional upfront money to pay for it.

That’s part of the reason many districts are testing their breakfast after the bell programs this year-to see what works and what doesn’t before the legal mandate takes hold on the first day of school next August. Traditional breakfast programs take place in the cafeteria before school starts and tend to draw fewer students. But many of the new breakfast programs will take place in classrooms, adding a new layer of complexity to food distribution and management.

The new distribution method also requires menu changes, some of which have proven unpopular with older students.

In Aurora, one of the most heavily-impacted districts, new complexities include everything from finding the money to lease another refrigerated truck to figuring out where to store dozens of bulky rolling coolers in already-cramped cafeterias. Then there are easily-overlooked details such as how to send a classroom set of spoons to each teacher, and ensuring that kids don’t clog up classroom sinks with soggy cereal bits when they pour left-over milk down the drain. (The solutions: pencil boxes and colanders.)

“There are lots of logistics,” said Mona Martinez-Brosh, director of nutrition services for Aurora Public Schools.

At the start of the 2014-15 school year, the law requires schools with 80 percent or more students receiving free or reduced-price meals to offer free breakfast to all students after the official start of the school day. Statewide, about 230 schools fall into that category, according to the Colorado Department of Education.

In the 2015-16 school year, the law’s free and reduced-price meal threshold drops to 70 percent, meaning that some 120 additional schools will be required to offer breakfast after the bell starting in August 2015. Districts with fewer than 1,000 students are exempt from the law.

Getting a head start

Many districts that educate large numbers of low-income students already offer breakfast after the bell, at least in some schools. For example, Denver currently offers this kind of breakfast program in 62 schools, with approximately 59 more required to add the program next fall.

Theresa Hafner, executive director of Enterprise Management for Denver Public Schools, said principals who need to implement breakfast after the bell next year will be invited to phase in a pilot program this spring, but it will not be mandatory.

“I can’t wait to feed more kids,” said Hafner. She cited anecdotal accounts about immediate positive effects from schools that already offer the program.

“The attendance is better, visits to the nurses are down…The principals tell us behavior issues are down,” she said.

Aurora schools currently offer breakfast in the classroom in 15 schools with one more slated to join the club in January. That leaves 11 schools that will have to launch breakfast after the bell programs next fall.

In the Harrison school district in Colorado Springs, two of the district’s 20 schools are currently piloting breakfast in the classroom. The rest, including 14 that are below the 80 percent threshold, are scheduled to launch similar programs in May. Nutrition Services Supervisor Tammy Brunnar said by launching the program during the last month of school, staff can work out the kinks and get a taste of how things will unfold next year.

Noting that 70 percent of district students are eligible for federally-discounted meals, she said, “There’s a need here and we want to make sure we do everything we can.”

Tasting the difference

Ask any food service director and they’ll tell you that breakfast after the bell means a switch to more prepackaged, hand-held foods. That’s because most versions of breakfast after the bell happen outside the cafeteria, usually in classrooms or at hallway “grab-and-go” stations. Thus, messy or temperature-sensitive items like bacon, scrambled eggs, oatmeal, and yogurt parfaits are out, in favor of neater, more compact items like dry cereal, egg sandwiches, muffins, whole fruit and cheese sticks.

“There’s a lot less scratch cooking,” said Hafner.

Still, some districts try to include at least a few homemade items on their breakfast after the bell menus. For example, DPS serves toast made from its freshly baked bread and its own homemade cinnamon rolls, which are sweetened with apple sauce. In Aurora, classroom breakfasts sometimes include scratch-made cheese omelets wrapped in tortillas.

In Harrison’s two pilot schools, Brunnar has replaced bacon and eggs and scratch-cooked burritos with prepackaged waffles, pancakes and cereal.  She acknowledged that the menu is limited, but said she’s researching new items to add, including breakfast sandwiches and sliders.

While prepackaged items are generally well-received at the elementary school, she’s seen resistance at the high school.

“Their palates are different. They’re used to having fresh-cooked meals and we can’t do that,” said Brunnar.

As a result, high school participation in breakfast after the bell is only around 30 percent, she said.

Brunnar is not the only one to have noticed push-back at the high school level. In the Adams 50 district, which is piloting breakfast after the bell at Westminster High School this year, an upset mother posted a photo of her student’s meager school breakfast earlier this month on her Facebook page. The picture showed a cheese stick and several packets of cracker in a plastic bag. The meal included a carton of milk not shown in the photo.

Stephen Saunders, the district’s director of communications, said the meal many not have been the best, but noted that students at the high school did get a chance to vote on potential breakfast menus. Among the five winning ensembles, all of which include milk, were cereal, banana and mini bagel with jelly; apple sauce and a bagel with cream cheese; and yogurt, animal crackers and craisins. Next year, the district will start breakfast after the bell at 12 more schools.

New start-up costs

The financial theory behind the Breakfast After the Bell law is that the new programs will ultimately pay for themselves through increased breakfast participation and, in turn, increased federal meal reimbursements. However, nutrition directors in some districts are grappling with the question of how to pay start-up costs, since the law allocated no funding for implementation.

“That’s just something the districts will have to consider,” said Amanda Mercer, senior consultant in the Colorado Department of Education’s Office of School Nutrition.

This year, Aurora received a $20,000 grant from the organization Share Our Strength that bought a three-door refrigeration unit and a kiosk to deliver grab-and-go style breakfasts. Martinez-Brosh said the money was helpful and hopes future grants will be available for additional start-up costs, which include everything from kitchen equipment to manual sweepers for each classroom.

Hafner said her financial challenges include buying new refrigerators and making electrical upgrades in her kitchen facilities.

“It’s hard to disagree with a law that feeds more kids…That’s what our core mission is,” she said. “But there’s no money up front. I don’t know how I’m going to make the equipment work…I can’t afford a lot.”

Show us how you do school breakfast

Calling all Colorado students, parents, teachers, principals and nutrition services staff: We want your help in creating a photo slideshow that shows the multitude of ways that schools are delivering breakfast to their students, particularly as schools get ready for the Breakfast After the Bell law, which takes effect next year.

Show us what your school or district does to prepare and deliver breakfast to students, whether you load up red wagons or rolling coolers, serve in a traditional cafeteria line or offer grab-n-go stations. We want to see not only what and where students eat, but the hard work that goes into connecting them with meals every morning. Use a camera, camera phone–whatever you’ve got.

E-mail photos to photos@ednewscolorado.org by January 31 or tweet or Instagram them with the hashtag #schoolbreakfastCO.