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Providing Universal Breakfast and Breakfast in the Classroom

Universal breakfast (providing breakfast at no charge to all students) has proven to be an effective strategy for increasing student participation, in part because it reduces stigma that can be a barrier to low-income student participation, and also because it makes it easier to implement service models that expand participation. Schools with a high percentage of low-income students find that they can afford to offer universal breakfast most effectively and easily when they increase participation through breakfast in the classroom. The increased participation and resulting federal reimbursements, coupled with the reduced administrative efforts spent on recovering unpaid fees, help districts break even.

All of the districts in this report have schools with high concentrations of poverty where they can offer universal breakfast and breakfast in the classroom to reach many more children. The pace at which districts are able to implement these programs depends on a range of factors: administrative support, financial resources for start-up expenses, and buy-in from the school community (parents, principals, teachers, janitors, and other school support personnel). This section provides information about and examines the effectiveness of urban school districts’ efforts to increase breakfast participation through the implementation of programs where breakfast is consumed in the classroom at the beginning of the school day.

Universal Breakfast Programs that offer meals at no charge to all students, regardless of income, often are called universal. The traditional means-tested school breakfast served in the cafeteria before school (in which the higher income children pay) creates a sense among the children that the program is just “for poor kids.” (This is less true for lunch, at least through middle school, because typically all children go into the cafeteria for lunch.)

Universal breakfast reduces the stigma, making school breakfast more attractive to all children, including particularly low-income children who need it, and providing all children the opportunity to start the school day ready to learn. Serving breakfast free to everyone can be done in the cafeteria, but adopting universal breakfast also helps schools implement programs such as breakfast in the classroom or offering breakfast from “grab and go” carts in the hallways at the start of the school day.

Of the 29 large urban school districts surveyed in this report, only four—Charlotte, Dallas, Little Rock, and Seattle

  • do not provide free breakfast to all students, regardless of income, at many or all of their schools. Notably,

three out of four of these districts failed even to match the participation rate for low-income student breakfast in their states.

Alternative Service Methods

Breakfast in the Classroom: Students eat breakfast in their classroom, either at the beginning of the school day or early during the day. Often breakfast is brought to classrooms from the cafeteria in containers or served from carts in the hallways by food service staff.

“Grab and Go”: All the components of school breakfast are conveniently packaged so students can easily grab a reimbursable meal quickly from the cafeteria line or from carts elsewhere on school grounds. Depending on the school’s rules, students can eat in the cafeteria, the classroom, or somewhere else on campus.

Breakfast after First Period or “Second Chance Breakfast”: Usually implemented in middle and high schools, this method allows students time after their first period to obtain breakfast from the cafeteria or carts in the hallway, or to eat in the classroom or cafeteria. Computerized systems ensure that children receive only one breakfast each day.

Food Research and Action Center

School Breakfast in America’s Big Cities


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