CMS aims to help students start day right, making breakfast more appealing

After a lackluster start, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is tweaking the free breakfast program to see whether they can get more students to eat before class.

The district began offering free breakfast to all students, regardless of income, at the beginning of last school year. It was billed as a way to increase academic performance without much local expense. The U.S. Department of Agriculture pays a large percentage of the cost.

Before the switch, CMS served about 30,000 breakfasts a day despite about half of the district’s 141,000 students being eligible for free breakfast based on income. Cindy Hobbs, director of child nutrition, said she had hoped that would double under the new program. Instead, CMS served only about 36,000 breakfasts per day.

“I was, frankly, disappointed,” Hobbs said. “Maybe it takes time for families to realize they can send their kids to school and have them have a good meal.”

A small group of elementary schools are experimenting this year with grab-and-go options and strategically placed kiosks to try to convince more students to eat breakfast at school. The goal is to learn lessons that can be applied across the district.

Free breakfast has long been a priority of groups such as the School Nutrition Association and No Kid Hungry. They cite studies showing that eating breakfast increases attendance and reduces behavior problems in school, alongside academic gains.

They’ve also been relatively uncontroversial. While the federal school lunch program has been criticized about its waste and cost by groups such as North Carolina’s conservative John Locke Foundation, few opponents have lined up against breakfast programs.

CMS offers free breakfast to students at no cost to the district, Hobbs said. The federal government contributed $9.9 million last year to the program. The state chipped in $125,000.

Free breakfasts in schools appear to be catching on nationwide. The School Nutrition Association reported that the number of children eating breakfast at school increased by more than 3 percent last year, to 13.6 million, largely based on growth in free breakfast programs.

Now, CMS has brought in a team from UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention to figure out how the district can boost participation in its program.

They’re working with three elementary schools – Montclaire, Pinewood and Berryhill – using a grant from the insurance company-affiliated Aetna Foundation to learn what might work.

“We said, ‘Breakfast is free, why aren’t you eating it?’ ” said Frederick Gilbert, area supervisor in CMS child nutrition services.

At Montclaire

Students at Montclaire Elementary in southwest Charlotte begin streaming into the cafeteria around 7:15 a.m. for a breakfast that looks a lot different than it was last year.

Then, you took a tray through the line, loaded it up and sat at cafeteria tables to eat. Now, kids grab a milk and a bag full of choices to take to their classrooms. On Tuesday, choices included a hot muffin or breakfast pizza, a cheese stick, a box of Rice Chex or Trix cereal, apple slices, orange juice or apple juice, and a milk.

There were logistical changes, too: Buses drop students off on the other side of campus, so students have to walk by the cafeteria before arriving at their classrooms. They installed softer lighting in the cafeteria to make it more inviting. They put in a new serving line to make it easier to get to the food. And administrators and teachers cajole the kids daily to get themselves something to eat.

The district is trying similar changes at Berryhill. At Pinewood, the school is targeting students who arrive late with a breakfast cart near where cars drop off.

The new system isn’t perfect. The line Tuesday morning at Montclaire backed up near the check-out station, where kids put in their five-digit ID numbers to log that they picked up a breakfast. Gilbert said the school is planning to bring in a new check-out line to speed things up.

The full results of the changes are yet to be seen. But through the first 14 days of class, Gilbert said the school had served 1,400 more meals. Before, the school was serving about 250 breakfasts each morning. Now it’s closer to 400. The school has about 700 students.

Principal Emily Miles said she’s seeing a less tangible benefit.

“I do know there’s a difference in the relationships between teachers and kids. They’re in the classrooms, eating and talking,” she said. “For me, that’s a huge piece, the relationship building.”

Growing option

Despite growth at CMS being below expectations, more students are eating breakfast across the state and country than they were a few years ago.

In 2013, nearly 420,000 students participated in the school breakfast program in North Carolina, up 14 percent from 2009, according to federal data. The government spent about $115 million on the program last year, up 32 percent from 2009. The numbers include both free and paid breakfasts.

Wake County, the largest school district in the state, is testing the universal free breakfast model at eight elementary schools this year. Durham County’s public school system also launched a free breakfast program at all schools this year.

Christina Powell, a first-grade teacher at Montclaire in Charlotte, said she isn’t sure whether the changes this year are having an effect, but said it makes a difference when students eat before class.

“You need to get breakfast to students to get their stomach full and energy going,” she said. “I’ll send them back to go get a breakfast.”