Students at Euclid Elementary eat breakfast together. Photo by Anabell Romero.
It’s just before 7 a.m. and the cafeteria women at Euclid Avenue Elementary are rapidly working to open boxes filled with crackers, fruit, plastic cereal bowls and low-fat milk cartons.
Wearing white aprons and hairnets, the three women take the food items and carefully place them in red coolers with small wheels. They check off the list of students to ensure each class receives enough breakfasts. Student volunteers pick up the coolers and deliver them to the classes.
“We start preparing everything at about 6 a.m. because the kids begin knocking on the door to pick up their breakfast to take to class at 8 a.m.,” said Rosalba Perez, the food services manager at Euclid Elementary in Boyle Heights.
Euclid is one of 147 Los Angeles Unified School District schools where the new Breakfast in the Classroom (BIC) program was implemented earlier this year. By the end of November they will launch the program in 161 more schools. In March 2013, 279 more schools will be added.
Thanks to this program, some students are now beginning their school day with the most important meal of the day: breakfast. For many LAUSD students who come from low-income families, the meals given to them at schools is often the only food they eat all day.
In the past, in order for students to eat for free at school, they had to qualify for government-subsidized school meals based on household income. Now LAUSD schools have implemented free child nutrition programs that allow every student to eat school food at no cost. Students are still required to fill out the meal application to qualify for a lunch at a free or reduced price category.
“Here at our school we have 100 percent free lunch program,” said Euclid principal MaryHelen Torres. “Before BIC started, out of our 1,000 kids, we had approximately 350 students having breakfast. Now we have over 800 students eating breakfast.”
Health and learning
Research has shown that not eating a well-balanced meal does have an effect on academic performance. Some of the benefits from eating healthier have direct impacts on dropout rates, attendance, academic performance and school revenues, according to a 2011 report by The California Healthy Students Research Project.
It’s still too early for most LAUSD schools to determine whether the new breakfast and lunch programs have had an impact on educational achievement, but Euclid teachers said they have noticed some positive signs.
“More students are arriving earlier to class, and there’s been less tardiness, and they are definitely more alert and focused,” second grade teacher Sandra Dominguez said.
World Fit For Kids nutrition director Trish Vance says, “Healthy bodies and healthy minds go hand in hand.” She says since more than half of LAUSD kids meals are served in school, “it’s imperative that those meals are nutrient-rich and not just empty calories with high sugar and sodium.”
Breakfast in the Classroom
Breakfast in the Classroom is part of a nationwide effort to combat the rise in childhood obesity, in a school district where more than half of the students are overweight, according to state study released last week. Early last year the Obama administration approved new school food nutrition guidelines in response to the federal Healthy Hunger-Free Care Act of 2010, which went into effect this school year.
The nutrition standards developed by experts at the Institute of Medicine and United States Department of Agriculture include increased produce options, a ban on unhealthy trans fats, portion-size guidelines and calorie limits based on the age of children served, an increased emphasis on whole grain products, low-fat (1 percent) and non-fat milk and reductions in sodium levels.
While formerly breakfast was only served in the cafeteria to some kids, now all students can have a meal that includes healthier options than previously offered. The sugary coffee cake has been replaced with items such as whole-wheat bagels, Cheerio-like cereal, sweet potato pancakes, burritos and more. Student reaction to the new food choices has been generally positive throughout the district.
“I like the breakfast because we drink milk, and it makes us strong,” said 7-year-old Euclid student Nathaly Olmos. “My favorite is the burrito.”
In a recent poll conducted by The California Endowment, California students were surveyed on their thoughts about the national school meal nutrition standards that took effect this academic year and whether they thought the meals were improving. Eighty-two percent of students said they supported the changes and 50 percent said the food choices had improved. Fifteen percent, however, said the meals were worsening.
Some of the new offerings are more popular than others, and the district is doing its best to determine which ones students prefer. “The teacher, a student helper, teacher’s assistant or parent volunteers help with keeping track of the students who eat their food,” Perez said. “Then we enter it into the system on our computers.”
While children are being fed healthier food at school, parent education and participation is an important part of changing eating habits. At Euclid Elementary, parent engagement has been a priority. The school has a parent center and community representatives that do outreach and workshops to help teach parents how to adopt a healthier food culture at home.
“When we first started Breakfast in the Classroom, we had a meeting to talk to parents and explain to them what we needed from them and to help us,” principal Torres said. “We had an overwhelming amount of parents that came to help us.”
Experts say that if kids eat healthier at home then they will be more open to eating some of the new items served at school. Some parent volunteers who are participating in the program understand how healthy eating is important to students’ learning.
“Breakfast is very important,” said Piedad Barrios, a parent volunteer who has two children attending Euclid. “It definitely helps students be focused and more cognitive.”
At Euclid Elementary, the principal sends monthly bulletins to inform parents of the changes happening at school, but parent volunteer Julia Guzman said, “many of them don’t take the time to even read the bulletin or come to the school to ask about what’s happening on campus.”
Many parents are not even aware that there have been changes to the school’s menu. According to the same report by The California Endowment, parental awareness of the new food changes lagged behind that of students, with only 36 percent of parents saying they were aware the menus had changed.
Part of the BIC program includes a curriculum change, which makes teachers responsible for talking to students about the importance of eating healthier. Dominguez said she teaches her students how to accurately read food labels, as well as the importance of eating fruits and vegetables.
School officials say they realize that getting kids to eat healthy is a collaborative effort, and they are continuously working toward ways to improve partnerships between students, school staff and parents to enhance the quality of education at LAUSD schools.
This piece is part of a New America Media fellowship regarding nutrition in schools, supported by The California Endowment.