By Bill Stanczykiewicz
Indiana Youth Institute
Indiana trails the nation in the percentage of eligible students who participate in the federal school breakfast program, but one of the state’s largest corporations is demonstrating how to close the hunger gap in order to close the academic achievement gap.
A good breakfast at home is vital to a great start at school. When poverty prevents parents from serving breakfast, low-income students can enroll in the federally-funded school breakfast program.
As Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction, Dr. Tony Bennett, wrote to school superintendents, “The Indiana Department of Education supports school breakfast programs. Research shows that eating breakfast has a tremendous positive effect on learning, test scores, and health.”
According to the Food Research Action Center (FRAC), the number of Hoosier students eating breakfast at school is increasing. During the 2011-12 school year, more than 2,000 schools served breakfast to more than 260,000 students, a 58 percent increase since 2005. The federal government pays for the meals, and funding to Hoosier schools increased to $58.6 million in 2010, up 73 percent in five years.
However, while 47 percent of Indiana students participate in the federal school lunch program, only 26 percent eat breakfast at school. That disparity ranks Indiana 28th in the nation for the percentage of eligible students who are enrolled in both hunger relief programs.
These data inspired Glenn Moehling to take action. Moehling is senior director of corporate responsibility at Elanco, the animal health division of Eli Lilly. Moehling recruited his colleague, Ken Savin, who is a trained “black belt” in the process improvement method, Six Sigma.
Savin examined the data, studied the trends and visited schools to talk with educators and watch how breakfast is served. His conclusion: many schools are still catching up to Indiana’s 57 percent increase in child poverty over the last decade.
“Areas that a decade ago did not have large numbers of eligible students now have a serious problem,” Savin explained. “Schools in those areas might not be familiar with how to run the breakfast program on a larger scale, and families who previously were not poor but who now are in poverty might not be willing to step up and admit they need the program.
“You look at school districts that never had high poverty rates and now they are poorer and poorer. It’s really devastating.”
Savin discovered that the best way to help these schools is to provide information from teachers, administrators and food service workers in districts that have effectively grown their school breakfast programs. He responded by helping to produce a short video of these school employees offering information and encouragement to their peers.
Start-up and expansion costs also can become an obstacle. Schools where more students are now eligible for school breakfast often need more refrigeration space as well as carts to transport breakfast to classrooms, where students can eat while teachers teach.
According to Moehling, the total cost often is in the range of $3,000-$4,000. Elanco, General Mills and the National Dairy Council have provided grants, and Moehling encourages other donors to help close the gap. “This is a one-time expense to feed kids breakfast for a long time,” Moehling said. “That should be an easy sell when raising money for something that has such a significant impact.”
While schools ramp up, they can recruit more eligible students to sign up. The U.S. Department of Agriculture encourages schools to increase student participation by inviting their parents to a breakfast at school. Additional publicity can be created by inviting local government officials, business leaders and other dignitaries to a school breakfast. School cafeterias can raise awareness by serving breakfast foods during a lunch period, and schools can host “taste tests” of breakfast items to sweeten interest among eligible students.
FRAC, meanwhile, encourages community organizations to inform schools about students who are in foster care, in Head Start or who are homeless, since these students automatically qualify for school breakfast.
School breakfast helps more low-income students be present and participating. They are more focused on class work instead of hunger, boosting their chances for academic success. In order for no child to be left behind, we need to ensure that no child is left without breakfast.
Bill Stanczykiewicz is President & CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.