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Focus Groups Share Impact of AASA Alternative School Breakfast Program

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 HempsteadFocusGroup

 In late September and early October, members of AASA Children’s Programs traveled to four of our 11 current school breakfast districts—Spring Independent School District (TX), Meriden Public Schools (CT), Newburgh Enlarged City School District (NY), and Hempstead Union Free School District (NY) to conduct focus groups with parents, administrators, and elementary, middle school and high school students.

With funding from the Walmart Foundation, AASA works with member districts to increase school breakfast participation using alternative breakfast strategies, such as Grab N Go, Breakfast in the Classroom and Second Chance Breakfast. The main goal of the initiative is to increase the number of low-income students who eat breakfast in these districts, thus helping to improve both health and education outcomes.

 

 HempsteadVending
Hempstead Union Free District (NY) School Breakfast Team in Front of Grab N Go Vending Machine in Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School.

Parents

 “Before, about two years ago, when we had to pay for meals, my daughter said she felt sorry for a friend who couldn’t afford breakfast or lunch. I had to explain that she could no longer share with her friend. How can you tell a kid that? It’s good for kids to now know that they have the option [to eat at school].” –Parent from Spring Independent School District (TX) 

 Spring ISD Focus Group September 19th
The parent focus group had the opportunity to sample Spring ISD's School Breakfast offerings, including smoothies.

Parents in Spring Independent School District, expressed a sentiment shared across all the focus groups from students to administrators: since every child has the option to eat breakfast, the students seem happier, more alert, and ready to learn in the morning. Students are more focused on their schoolwork rather than on the fact that they are hungry. Parents, students and administrators stated that because of eating breakfast, children did better in school.

Some of the parents’ children were in schools that weren’t part of the AASA alternative school breakfast program. They were hearing the positive experiences about the program from other parents, and wanted it for their children. It was helpful for the Superintendent and Food Service Director to hear this feedback so they not only can continue this program, but expand it to as many schools as possible in their district.

Students
“The lunch ladies are very nice and I appreciate everything they do. They do a good job because they are managing two lines at breakfast and lunch. I think that there should be a lunch ladies’ appreciation day.”-Middle School Student Meriden Public Schools (CT)

 MeridenGnGcart
Meriden Public Schools (CT) Grab N Go Cart.

 Hearing from students was a highlight from these focus groups. They brought perspectives about nutrition that were comparable to that of a dietician or food service director. For instance, one seventh grader-with no personal dietary restrictions- from Meriden Public Schools, suggested that the school breakfast team add more variety of milk such as almond milk and lactose free milk. She also suggested including an extra breakfast cart for students with allergies to limit cross-contamination for those students with peanut, lactose and gluten allergies.

 Moreover, an elementary school student in Hempstead explained how she learned from the district’s Food Service Director that 20 grams or less of sugar are healthier options and should be considered to avoid getting cavities or having too many calories. The students also shared how while they would prefer hot food for breakfast (a preference shared across grade levels and in all the districts) they understood that when food cools down, there’s an increased risk of bacteria.

 Students appreciate the opportunity to socialize with friends during school breakfast time. They also found that hallways were less chaotic than when they only had the option to eat in the cafeteria. In middle and high schools, more children are waiting in line, eager to eat Grab N Go breakfast from a cart or vending machine. Middle school students in Meriden Public Schools discussed how the Grab N Go cart method is used so much, that they suggested that the school breakfast team should purchase an extra cart.

 Furthermore, in elementary schools, Breakfast in the Classroom helps children ease into their school day.

   “When breakfast was served in the cafeteria, [The school staff] used to tell us ‘hurry up, hurry up, be quiet, be quiet’. Now that it is eaten in the classroom, they encourage us to be more social,” observed an elementary school student in Hempstead Union Free District (NY).

Administrators

 “Not as many students are coming [to the nurse’s office] because they are hungry. I used to give [students] crackers and juice- things like that-. I don’t do that as much anymore. I tell [the students] about the [school breakfast] vending machines and they use them.” – A middle school Nurse, Newburgh Enlarged School District (NY) 

 A look of horror crossed each of the four assistant principals’ faces at a middle school, when asked if they thought school breakfast should be continued or discontinued in Newburgh Enlarged School District. “Discontinue? No, we can’t do that,” said one assistant principal, “Taking away the breakfast program would be disruptive to the school and the kids will be agitated.”

 The assistant principals in Newburgh Enlarged School District (NY) shared how a local church served meals during out-of-school times such as summertime or during breaks. When pulling information for the summer meal program, the Food Service Director noted that many children had the same address -that of a hotel for the homeless. That helped the district know that there were more homeless children in their district than the 1,000 that they count.  

 As of the 2016-2017 school year, the Newburgh has district wide Community Eligibility, meaning all students receive free school breakfast and school lunch.

 “When we announced district wide Community Eligibility during ninth grade orientation, the parents were excited about free breakfast and lunch,” the assistant principals said.

 Other administrators discussed how they approached implementing the program.

 “I thought school breakfast was a great idea, but it was scary in the sense of ‘how are we going to do it,’” said a middle school principal in Meriden Public Schools (CT). “School breakfast started day one. We said ‘we are doing to attack it and do the best we can.’"

Conclusions  

 It was apparent from the focus groups that breakfast affects students beyond academics and that these programs impacted the districts’ communities in a positive way.

 For Meriden, Public Schools (CT), establishing a community feel was essential to the success of their program. Everyone on staff from teachers to custodians to the principal to the library manager greets the children in the morning, encouraging them to take a breakfast. The school psychologist noted that “something we talked about in grad school is how kids who eat breakfast do better. It was great to see alternative school breakfast in action, after learning about its impact in school.”

  Sharon Gardner was encouraged to begin a summer meals program after learning about it from other participating school district leaders at AASA’s April 2016 Community of Practice .

“I was afraid of [implementing a summer meal programs] for a long time. I thought it would be a big, bad scary thing and it wasn’t,” said Hempstead Food Service Director Sharon Gardner.

 A Community of Practice is more than a meeting—it’s an opportunity to share best practices, brainstorm ideas to address challenges and share stories of how the program has impacted schools and community. AASA convened another Community of Practice in late October 2016. Insights from the focus groups inspired case studies, where food service directors and mentors from state level anti-hunger and dairy organizations worked together to develop strategies and plans on how to improve the alternative school breakfast programs. Learn more about the October 2016 Community of Practice from the Total Child blog.

Snapshot of Focus Group School Districts

  

District
City/State
Superintendent
Food Service Director
Free/ Reduced Meal Rate
Spring Independent School District     
Houston, TX
Rodney Watson
Shelly Copeland
 74%
Meriden Public Schools
Meriden, Conn.
Mark Benigni
Susan Maffe
68%
Newburgh Enlarged City School District
Newburgh, NY
Roberto Padilla
Caitlin Lazarski
CEP District Wide
Hempstead Union Free District
Hempstead, NY
Fadhilika Atiba-Weza Sharon Gardner CEP District Wide

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