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Schools wake up to the benefits of breakfast

The first time the school lunch ladies showed up at her classroom with a whole pizza, which she was expected to divvy up for her students’ breakfast, Dana DiTomasso-Junkman was flummoxed.

“We didn’t really know how to do it back then,” said DiTomasso-Junkman, who was a teacher at Pueblo’s Ridley Middle School when that pizza arrived eight years ago. Today, she’s an assistant principal at Pueblo’s Centennial High School.

School breakfasts in Colorado – like DiTommasso-Junkman – have come a long way since then. And the push is on to greatly expand Colorado students’ participation in the School Breakfast Program.

Last week, Gov. Bill Ritter announced the Colorado Department of Education’s School Breakfast Challenge, which will reward top schools with cash prizes up to $5,000 for increasing student participation in school breakfast.

There’s vast room for improvement. Colorado ranks in the bottom 10 among the states in the number of students who eat school breakfast relative to those who eat lunch – only 37.9 percent. The nation’s top-ranked state – New Mexico – has a participation rate above 62 percent, according to a 2009 survey conducted by the Food Research and Action Center.

This despite the clear evidence that eating school breakfast improves children’s academic performance, their attendance and behavior, as well as their overall health. That, and the fact that there’s no need for most schools to charge anything for breakfast. In fact, the more free breakfasts they serve, districts with the highest poverty rates can even make money, thanks to federal reimbursements.

“This is something that can make a huge impact on kids,” said Katherine Moos, program manager for the Colorado Campaign to End Childhood Hunger.

“Especially for low-income kids,” Moos said. “Because they have more barriers to getting good nutrition at home, it’s that much more important for them to get good nutrition at school. We know that this simple intervention can dramatically change the school environment.”

Moving breakfast out of the cafeteria

Yet a number of factors conspire to keep kids – even hungry kids – away from school breakfast.

“Many schools serve a traditional cafeteria breakfast, which in theory is not a bad thing,” said Moos. “But when breakfast is served in the cafeteria before school, it’s difficult for some kids to access. Even though the staff is there, the meals are prepared and ready to eat, the kids don’t get there. The buses are late.

Students at Denver's Rachel Noel Middle School get a quick breakfast at the school's grab-and-go breakfast cart.
Students at Denver's Rachel Noel Middle School get a quick breakfast at the school's grab-and-go breakfast cart.

“Or there’s pressure to hang out with their friends on the playground. And sometimes, it’s considered stigmatized, something only the noticeably poor participate in, so even though there are some kids who might need it, it’s not emotionally comfortable for them to eat in the cafeteria before school.”

Several Colorado schools districts have already taken some creative steps to boost participation in the school breakfast program.

More are moving breakfast out of the cafeteria and into the classrooms, where it’s free for everyone. Others have set up “grab-and-go” carts, so students can easily pick up a bagged breakfast and take it with them to the playground or classroom or wherever they’d like to go.

Still others have scheduled a “nutrition break” between first and second periods of the school day, to better conform to when students – particularly middle and high schoolers – actually get hungry. At least one rural school district has started offering “bus breakfasts,” to feed children who must endure long bus rides to school.

Pueblo leads move to eating in class

Leading the move to classroom-based breakfasts is Pueblo, which has been experimenting with the concept since 1998. When school resumes there later this month, 23 of the district’s 33 schools will offer free breakfast in the classroom to all students and teachers.

Those years of experience have now taught the district what to serve and what to avoid – like whole pizza – and what to do with the leftover trash so classrooms don’t start smelling like stale milk by late afternoon.

“It’s fairly inexpensive to implement, and there’s a lot of guidance available from CDE and the Western Dairy Council about how to do it,” said Jill Kidd, director of food services for the Pueblo district.

“I think any concerns about the loss of academic time are outweighed by the fact that the students are more alert in the morning and have fewer tardies,” she added. “I think teachers have provided a lot of creative ways to use those 15 minutes for breakfast to still work on academic achievement.”

One of the Pueblo schools that will begin offering daily in-classroom breakfasts for the first time this fall is Centennial, thanks in large part to DiTomasso-Junkman’s lobbying efforts.

After leaving Ridley, she’d gone on to teach at Pueblo’s East High School, where classroom breakfast was standard operating procedure. When she arrived at Centennial last year, she was surprised to find breakfast served the old-fashioned way, before school in the cafeteria. In a school of nearly 1,200 students, fewer than 50 ate breakfast on any given day, she said.

But as CSAP testing time rolled around, the faculty decided it would boost scores if they could just ensure that no child took the test on an empty stomach. DiTomasso-Junkman called Kidd to see if breakfast could be delivered to every classroom for the duration of the CSAPs.

“Absolutely,” Kidd said.

Reponse to CSAP meals demonstrate need

“On those testing days, we had such a huge response, and the kids were eating like crazy,” DiTomasso-Junkman said. “The lunch ladies were excited because they’d never seen that many kids eat breakfast. The kids were tearing into it like they’d never seen food before. It was 9 a.m. and they were starving.”

Sixteen-year-old Alexandra Peppin was one of those starving teenagers who benefited from Centennial’s CSAP-inspired breakfasts.

A breakfast cart is loaded with meals, ready for delivery to classrooms in a Denver school.
A breakfast cart is loaded with meals, ready for delivery to classrooms in a Denver school.

“I felt more alert and better about my test-taking ability,” she said. “If I don’t have food in my system, I feel like everything is lacking. It was nice having that breakfast provided.”

Much as she appreciated breakfast, Alexandra admits she often goes without. She wouldn’t dream of eating breakfast in the school cafeteria.

“I’m a modern-day kid,” she said. “I don’t want to get up any earlier than I have to to make myself breakfast. Breakfast starts really early, and I’m more focused at that point on getting to my locker, getting everything ready to go. And I don’t like to spend my money on food if I don’t have to.”

Armed with the clear evidence that Centennial students would perform better if served breakfast in their classrooms, DiTomasso-Junkman set about lobbying to change the school’s breakfast routine. Her principal supported the idea, and eventually most of the other teachers came around.

Come fall, no more poorly-attended cafeteria breakfasts. Free breakfast will be served to every student, regardless of income level, in their morning classes.

Teachers will use that 15 minute breakfast time to take roll, make announcements, check on homework, do silent reading or accomplish any of the other house-keeping duties that must be done without cutting into instruction time.

Success from Canon City to Lakewood

Elsewhere around the state, other districts have their own breakfast success stories and strategies.

In Canon City, district officials launched a “Breakfast at the Bell” program. When the bell rings, students know they have 15 minutes to grab a free breakfast from one of the food carts located at the school entrance.

Since starting the program six years ago, the number of students eating breakfast grew from fewer than 100 to about 650 per day, which represents about 85 percent of all students. And because all the breakfasts come with milk, milk consumption is up significantly, district officials say.

Jefferson County started a pilot breakfast program last spring at Deane Elementary School in Lakewood. Of the 491 students at the school, only 85 typically ate breakfast there. Now, an average of 400 a day have breakfast.

This success rate prompted 10 more district elementary schools, one middle school and a high school to begin providing universal free breakfasts in the classroom.

Denver Public Schools has tried a number of approaches. In 2006, the district launched Start Smart, which offers free breakfast to all students at nearly all of the districts schools. That boosted breakfast participation rate from 11 percent to about 25 percent.

Some schools have adopted grab-and-go free breakfast carts. Two schools – Montbello High School and Emily Griffith Opportunity School – have “smart” vending machines that dispense free breakfast items when students enter their six-digit ID numbers, but charge for non-approved items.

But most DPS schools still have the traditional cafeteria-line breakfasts, even though they’re now free for everyone. DPS will serve breakfast in the classroom in only about 15 schools this fall. That’s up five from last year, but still too few to suit Food and Nutrition Services director Leo Lesh.

“It’s difficult to get everybody on board,” Lesh said. “It’s not just the teachers. It’s the principal. It’s the custodians. The first thing out of their mouth is ‘Oh no! There will be a mess! There will be bugs!’

“We just try to put those fears to rest, one by one, to point out the benefits of what breakfast in the classroom really does. And if they spill milk, well, somebody cleans it up. It’s kind of a win-win for everybody, but sometimes it just takes some convincing – especially if the school just got recarpeted over the summer.”

Rebecca Jones can be reached at

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