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Commentary: In-class breakfasts a promising innovation

Robert Reichardt, the former director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at CU-Denver’s School of Public Affairs, is president of R-Squared Research, LLC, a local research firm.

One of the biggest challenges for schools is dealing with demographic changes in their student population. As the Colorado Children’s Campaign has pointed out, this is a significant challenge for Colorado schools because our proportion of kids in poverty has grown faster than anywhere else in the nation.

One response to this challenge is serving in-class breakfasts to all students in a school. This intervention was recently highlighted in this Denver Post article. In most schools, this is free to all students because of high rates of free and reduced lunch eligibility. Federal funds cover most if not all of the expenses.

A few weeks ago I visited an elementary school that started an in-class breakfast program this school-year. Before school, carts were used to deliver three coolers of food for each classroom (one with the hot entrée, milk and one with fruit). Everyone had the same entrée (cheese quesadilla the day I visited). Kids came to their classes, picked up their food, and quickly sat down to eat.

It was very calm and orderly process (I am not used to elementary schools being this quiet). I spoke with several teachers who said they had been apprehensive about in-class (e.g. the mess, the potential chaos, and lost instructional time) at the beginning of the year, and are now big fans of the program. Teachers and the principals reported they now had fewer morning behavior problems and kids seemed to be more-on task than last year.

In the lower grades, it took less than 15 minutes for the kids to finish eating. In the intermediate grade classroom I observed the teacher started the day’s administrative tasks while kids were eating, which slowed the eating. Each classroom had a bagged trashcan for the breakfast waste which was placed outside of the classroom for pickup. Waste was minimized by not using paper-plates or bowls. The custodian said his daily workload had not increased with the program: He spent his morning picking up garbage instead of cleaning up after breakfast in the lunchroom.

But he did at least one extra shampoo of the classroom floors per year. The biggest challenge seemed to be finding a place to store the carts, coolers, and extra food.

I am sure that the program is not all easy. A teacher reported they had a breakfast with syrup only once. In my household we would probably have to send a breakfast to school with our kid who has dietary restrictions (but we might be able to sleep-in an extra 15 minutes). I am sure not everyone likes the food. If this program is rolled out to schools with lower free and reduced lunch counts, administration may become more challenging.

A recent NBER research report by Imberman and Kugler finds these free in-class breakfasts can have some significant impacts on student achievement. They were able to compare changes in test scores, attendance, and grades as the program was rolled out over an 11 week period in 88 schools within a large urban district (87 percent Hispanic or black). The district had piloted in-class breakfasts in 33 schools prior to this rollout. The pilot shows the in-class breakfast program doubled proportion of eligible kids who ate breakfast (41 percent to 80 percent).

Inberman and Kugler used a type of value-added analysis and found that kids in schools with in-class breakfasts had a .1 standard deviation increase in test scores compared to schools that did not have the program. This change was about half the size seen when class-sizes were reduced to 15 students in the Tennessee STAR experiment.

The data also suggests that the increase in test scores was larger for lower performing and Hispanic students. They did not see larger test score increases in schools that had been in the breakfast longer; suggesting the changes in test scores may be due to improved test-taking instead of actual learning gains. (Earlier research by Figlio and Winicki suggests schools can increase test scores by serving increased calories during test time). Imberman and Kugler found a weak impact of the free breakfast program on attendance and no impact on course grades.

All of this does not prove that in-class breakfasts are a slam dunk in terms of effectiveness. But, we need to try out new and different strategies to respond to our changing student population and the very real problem of hunger in our communities. And, for many of our schools this is a no-cost initiative given federal support for meals.

To prove the value of these lunches we need districts to agree to a rollout process that supports a good research design and more data collection during the implementation of these meals, particularly information from students about whether they regularly get breakfast at home. I hope researchers and school districts can work together to evaluate and hopefully further this type of initiative.

About our First Person series:

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