‘Lots of kids have a hard time getting breakfast in the morning.’ They’re fixing that

‘You can’t really function throughout the day if you don’t have a proper meal.’

Shuksan Middle School serves breakfast in the classroom to all students to avoid the stigma of the inability to pay for meals. It's also led to conversations about the role of healthy eating in education.
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Shuksan Middle School serves breakfast in the classroom to all students to avoid the stigma of the inability to pay for meals. It's also led to conversations about the role of healthy eating in education.

As they joke and settle into their day, some of the eighth-grade students in teacher Dara Yost’s social studies class at Shuksan Middle School eat their breakfast — an apple-cinnamon breakfast cookie, a carton of low-fat milk and a small apple.

They’ve had the option of having their first meal of the day in class since November, when Shuksan became the first middle school in Bellingham School District to launch what’s called Breakfast in the Classroom.

One goal of the program is to fight hunger by making sure that students from low-income families have enough nutritious food to eat.

“What children eat matters. They have to be well-nourished to learn,” Jessica Sankey, director of Wellness for the Bellingham School District, said to The Bellingham Herald.

Another goal is to remove the stigma that may be there for those students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch and who used to start their day by walking through the school’s doors and heading to the cafeteria for breakfast.

“It’s almost like the first way that you start your day is being segregated, essentially. You get to say, ‘I’m the kid who needs free and reduced lunch’ by separating yourself,” Tyler Dockins, a sixth-grade math teacher who was one of the early proponents of bringing the program to Shuksan, told The Bellingham Herald.

Now, all students can eat together in their first class of the day, at no charge to them.

Breakfast sits ready for students to take what they need in Dara Yost’s classroom in Shuksan Middle School on Wednesday, March 13, 2019. Lacey Young The Bellingham Herald

Students who don’t want the food — they’re not hungry at that time of the day, they ate at home — put it into their classroom’s share bin for others to eat later.

“Every kid gets to walk into school, they get to share breakfast together and think about the most important thing, which is their learning and their friends as opposed to thinking about how hungry they are,” Dockins said.

Teachers have said the rollout has been seamless, and having breakfast after the bell rings hasn’t interfered with instructional time, which had been a concern.

Why Breakfast in the Classroom matters

Of the four middle schools in Bellingham, Shuksan has the highest percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, at 54 percent, according to Bellingham School District data.

That data, an indicator of family wealth, was for the 2017-18 school year.

Still, school officials noticed that far fewer students who qualified for free and reduced-price meals at Shuksan actually ate breakfast.

Just 16 percent of students did in October, the month before the launch of Breakfast in the Classroom, and that number included students who paid full price.

The program was first rolled out in sixth grade at Shuksan, followed by seventh and eighth grades.

In January, the first full month of participation in all grades, just about the whole school ate breakfast at 78 percent, according to figures from the Bellingham School District.

“Kids are choosing breakfast, sitting down and eating together,” Sankey said.

Before the launch, students who wanted breakfast had to get to the school cafeteria before class started. That inconvenience may have been one reason why the students who qualified didn’t to want to eat breakfast then. Or, they may have preferred to hang out with their friends before school’s start instead of eating breakfast, Shuksan officials said.

“Either way, way more students are having breakfast now, which is, I think, a huge success,” Shuksan Principal Amy Carder said to The Bellingham Herald.

The share bin, where students can grab food to snack on when they’re hungry, has been an added benefit.

“That’s a huge piece for a lot of students to have healthy snacks throughout the day. So even the students who don’t qualify for free and reduced lunch have access to food throughout the day when they get hungry in the afternoon,” Carder said.

Because they have access to those snacks, students are less lethargic and can focus on the “hard work of learning,” Dockins said.

Dara Yost discusses the importance of breakfast with her students in her classroom at Shuksan Middle School. Lacey Young The Bellingham Herald

Breakfast in the Classroom has led to conversations around food, including healthy eating and how food affects the way students feel and how well they’re able to learn, Shuksan officials said.

For example, those Monster Energy drinks, Takis and hot Cheetos that students like to bring to school?

Carder said they’ve been able to tell students they can’t eat them at school because there are healthy options.

Before, they felt they couldn’t because the students were hungry and that was what they brought from home, Carder said.

“Now, we feel we can,” she said.

Grants paid for the equipment for the program, including the rolling bags that are used to deliver the breakfasts to classrooms.

Federal dollars reimburse the school district for the meals.

Larger trend of classroom meal programs

Breakfast in the Classroom is part of a larger movement called Breakfast After the Bell. Other versions are known as Second Chance Breakfast or Grab and Go, according to Sankey.

While Shuksan was the first Bellingham middle school to launch Breakfast in the Classroom, it isn’t the only school in the city to offer what’s called universal breakfast, meaning the meal is offered free to all students.

Six elementary schools — Alderwood, Birchwood, Roosevelt, Cordata, Carl Cozier and Sunnyland — have had the program since the 2016-17 school year because of the number of families who qualify for free and reduced-price meals there, according to the Bellingham School District.

One reason why Shuksan was the first middle school to have Breakfast in the Classroom was that many of those elementary schools feed into the middle school, according to Eric Paige, associate principal for Shuksan.

Taken together, an average of 2,218 students are served breakfast in their classrooms at those schools, according to the Bellingham School District.

It’s unknown how many schools in Washington state offer Breakfast in the Classroom, because the Washington State Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction hasn’t been tracking that data.

The practice is spreading across the state, though, with the passage last year of the Washington Kids Ready to Learn Act.

The measure required all schools that have at least 70 percent of students who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals to implement a Breakfast After the Bell program starting next school year, according to Leanne Eko, the director of Child Nutrition Services for OSPI.

OSPI is preparing for the launch in about 350 schools across the state, which would make breakfast more accessible to over 150,000 students, Eko said to The Bellingham Herald.

What Shuksan students think

Back at Shuksan Middle School, seventh-graders Liv Hampton, Iyana Bak and Aletheia Waller, who wrote a story about the program for their school newspaper, talked about its importance.

“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day and you can’t really function throughout the day if you don’t have a proper meal, and I think lots of kids have a hard time getting breakfast in the morning,” Hampton, 13, said.

Before the program, some kids didn’t eat breakfast because they wanted to sleep in, hang out with their friends or they didn’t have food at home, the students said.

“For me, there’s a lot that happens in the morning and I feel like I need to get everything done and breakfast just isn’t on my mind. It’s not a need,” Waller, 13, said.

One thing the students said they would like to have is more options.

Instead of low-fat milk, they said they’d like to have juice or dairy alternatives such as soy milk or almond milk for kids who have dietary restrictions.

Kie Relyea has been a reporter at The Bellingham Herald since 1997 and currently writes about social services and recreation in Whatcom County. She started her career in 1991 as a reporter and editor in Northern California.