When New York put $17.9 million in the budget this week to enable 500 elementary schools to switch to breakfast in the classroom, it meant 340,000 more kids will start their day with the meal they need to succeed. That’s worthy of celebration in its own right. But as they say on the late night infomercials for knives and kitchen appliances: “Wait, there’s more!” We’re learning that the impact of breakfast in the classroom is potentially even more profound.
A panel at Virginia’s School Breakfast Summit this month cast our school breakfast work in a new light. The four testimonials from a principal, superintendent, literacy specialist and school nutrition director went beyond the usual rhetoric that “hungry kids can’t learn.” Instead each made a related but different point about the value of alternative breakfast strategies. They explained how breakfast after the bell increases instructional time in measurable ways.
Many kids previously came to class late most days because they would go to the cafeteria first – not early before school, but as the first period was starting – and then arrive at first period halfway through. Alternative breakfast gave the teachers 20 minutes back and a full first period.
Increased instruction time is the coin of the realm in education circles. It is one of the most important variables in increasing the academic achievement upon which school rankings, teacher performance, and funding often ride. Accordingly legions of advocates advance and champion ideas for squeezing more class time into a finite school day.
Now apply this to our win in New York. Imagine a percentage of the 340,000 elementary school students who will start getting breakfast in the classroom having 15 more minutes of instructional time a day. Over the course of 180 school days that would yield 45 hours of additional instruction. More than an entire week. It is a “school breakfast dividend” that compensates for the class time that we’ve been stealing from children and teachers through the less inefficient cafeteria model instituted half a century ago. Any calculation about return on investment for breakfast after the bell ought to include it.
There are obvious physical and developmental benefits to ensuring that children start their day well fed and ready to learn. There is also the value of eating together as a class, in a more communal setting, rather than in cliques in the cafeteria. Now add additional instructional time that benefits students and teachers alike. There not a less expensive or more cost effective way to achieve it than the innovation moving breakfast to when and where kids are, rather than requiring the kids to navigate logistical hurdles, often beyond their control, of getting to breakfast.
There’s more to celebrate than we thought.