Missouri teacher sees benefits of USDA-sponsored free breakfast program

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Mornings always start the same way in Denelle Hoff’s third-grade classroom at Williams Elementary School.

Sure, the pencils, papers and books come out. But not right away. First, students get food, maybe some eggs and biscuits, a banana or orange and a carton of milk.

Then they eat at their desks, just as if they were sitting at the kitchen table at home. All the children, eating breakfast together.

For Landon Cantrell, 8, it’s “cool.” Not having to go to the lunchroom, who doesn’t love that? And Melody Flynn, also 8, likes to eat breakfast alongside her classmates, especially on cinnamon roll day.

But educators at Williams see benefits of the universal free breakfast program that go way beyond cool and fun. Throughout the school, they see focused, more alert children. Calmer kids. Students who no longer need to see the nurse for stomach aches, who don’t get in tussles with other kids each morning, who don’t ask every few minutes how long until lunch.

“Food is fuel for the brain and body, and some were literally coming to school empty,” says Wanita Watts, the Springfield Public Schools’ nutritional services director, who applied for the pilot grant last year. “Now kids are ready to learn.”

In November 2010, Williams was the first school in the Springfield district to pilot the breakfast program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Principal Jennifer Webb jumped at the chance because she knew many of her students were coming to school hungry and some had not eaten since lunch the day before.

She also knew that only 45 percent of her students were taking advantage of the morning meal at school. Nearly 90 percent are enrolled in the free- and reduced-price food program.

Many would arrive too late, and just want to get to class. “Some would go into the cafeteria, look at the line and just turn around,” Webb said.

Now, her students are starting the day with a healthy breakfast — even the cinnamon rolls are whole grain. Some students pass on the meal because they’ve eaten at home, but roughly 92 percent of the students eat in the classroom.

Tardies are down. Attendance is up. And for the first time in four years, the Title I school made adequate yearly progress in both math and communication arts.

“If we feed kids, fill their bellies,” says Webb, “how can it hurt?”

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