This piece was written by Sara Levin and Katie Mosehauer.
When a student ends up in the school office because of a fight, “Did you have breakfast?” is probably not the first thing a principal asks. But maybe it should be. Kids who start the day hungry are nearly twice as likely to have conflict with peers and to fall into behaviors like fighting, unruliness and bullying that disrupt school for everyone.
Today, one in four Washington families struggles to keep enough food on the table, and teachers report record numbers of students showing up hungry for class.
The answer might seem straightforward: Get kids into existing school breakfast programs. After all, those in free-and-reduced-price lunch programs already qualify. But school breakfast programs reach only a third of eligible children in Washington, putting us a dismal 41st out of 50 states.
Why is this? In Washington, breakfast is usually served before school in the cafeteria, and if you’re “one of the poor kids” who takes part, there can be stigma. Plus, kids would naturally rather be outside with others socializing and having fun.
Schools elsewhere in the country — and some pioneering schools locally, like in the Highline School District — have new approaches that make breakfast part of the school day and available to every child. Together, these new models are known as Breakfast after the Bell.
State legislators are now considering requiring Breakfast after the Bell at all schools with large numbers of low-income students. Breakfast after the Bell takes roughly 15 minutes at the start of the day, and many classroom teachers find ways to use the time for active learning even as kids eat. The bill in Olympia calls for a phased rollout to high-needs schools, gradually reaching an additional 25,000 students in the next three years.
What can we expect if Breakfast after the Bell takes hold? Stats in a recent study by Washington Appleseed and United Way of King County give an indication. At Washington schools that have already achieved high breakfast participation, there are 17.7 percent fewer suspensions and expulsions. The same schools have sharply lower absenteeism.
“Since we started Breakfast after the Bell last September, teachers and administrators have commented repeatedly on the differences in the kids. They settle down faster and focus on their learning,” said Sarah Martin, nutrition services manager for the Highline School District.
What would it cost? Like the school lunch program, Breakfast after the Bell will leverage federal dollars — an estimated $9.6 million when the program reaches scale in three years. United Way and other private funders plan to raise money for start-up costs. State expenses would be minimal.
Even if your family is blessed with a perfect breakfast every day, other distracted, under-nourished children can compromise your child’s ability to succeed. Hungry, disruptive children need more of the teacher’s time. And if those kids fall behind because of suspensions or absences, the situation is still worse. For these reasons and more, we should all bite into Breakfast after the Bell.
Sara Levin is vice president of community services at United Way of King County. Katie Mosehauer is executive director of Washington Appleseed.
Editor’s note: The original version of this post, published at 1:30 p.m. Jan. 31, was updated at 10:25 a.m. Feb. 3 after editors were informed that an additional author contributed to the piece.