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Springfield Public Schools offer free breakfast to all students in their classrooms, helping boost attendance and graduation rates while decreasing hunger across the Massachusetts school district.
When students in Springfield, Massachusetts show up to class, they grab breakfast—an egg sandwich, a fruit cup, a freshly baked muffin—before heading to their seats. The food is freshly prepared and offered for free to every student as part of Springfield Public Schools’ “breakfast in the classroom” program, an initiative launched four years ago as a way to improve education outcomes and reduce the stigma associated with free meals.
Springfield Public Schools had offered free breakfast before, a federal requirement due to the 76.7 percent of students within the district who live at or below the poverty line. But only 23 percent of students participated—a disparity that district officials thought was likely due to the program’s format. Breakfast was only offered in the cafeteria, and students had to get there early to eat it before class began. Kids congregated in the hallways; some students reported incidents of bullying. One mishap—a car problem, bad weather, a bus delay—could jeopardize breakfast, which for some children was the first meal they’d eaten since lunch the day before.
“If your bus comes late to school, basically you’re not able to eat breakfast,” said Patrick Roach, chief financial and operations officer at Springfield Public Schools. “If you’re walking to school and you’re late to school, you basically don’t get to eat breakfast. You have to come to school early to come to the cafeteria, get your food, eat it and walk to class to be to class on time.”
District officials decided to experiment with moving breakfast to the classroom, beginning with a pilot program at one elementary school. The measure expanded steadily after that, eventually moving into middle schools, then into high schools—a first for Massachusetts.
Breakfast participation spiked to 80 percent, according to district statistics, and with it came a host of positive changes. Tardies went down, and the halls cleared more quickly before morning classes. Fewer kids missed breakfast for being late, because the program allowed a 15-minute grace period after the bell rang. School nurses reported a 71 percent decrease in visits from hungry children.
“The nurses were the ones who used to have the kids in their office every day, and they’d be giving them crackers, because for some kids, their only meals are the ones we serve them,” Roach said. “The nurses called us and said, ‘This is amazing.’”
Graduation rates since 2012 have increased district-wide, from 53 percent to 77 percent. That metric is due to a host of factors, Roach said, but ensuring that students are well-fed is a likely component.
“Instead of kids going to the nurse, they’re in class learning. If attendance is going up and tardies are going down, then more kids are in class learning,” he said. “These kids were hungry. They just weren’t eating. Now that we’ve made the logistics better on it, these kids are eating every day.”
As participation in the program increased, so did federal reimbursements for the food, allowing the district to expand its menu to include fresh, healthy choices made on-site at a state-of-the-art culinary center. The $21 million facility was purchased on bond by the city of Springfield, which developed the kitchen using grant money from the federal Department of Agriculture. The school rents the building from the city in an amount equal to the bond payments, using the federal reimbursements it receives for each meal served to students.
The school district partners with Sodexo, a food-service provider, to run the facility. District officials brainstorm menu choices; Sodexo staff then execute that vision, Roach said. Choices include freshly baked fruit muffins, breakfast bowls, yogurt with local granola and egg sandwiches.
“Because we make them in-house, it saves us money,” Roach said. “So we’re able to put more money into the food quality and the ingredients.”
With the healthy meal options, coupled with the implementation of school vegetable gardens, officials hope to help students make better food choices, potentially developing good eating habits for the rest of their lives. That’s on top of simply aiming to provide them with adequate nutrition, Roach said, giving them a better chance at academic success.
“Food is a basic need. Kids need food to live and survive. They also need to have food in their bellies to learn,” he said. “This wasn’t, ‘Hey, this is the business of pushing this program as a way to generate money for the district.’ This was coming from our superintendent saying, ‘This is good for kids, and our kids need this.’”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.