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Stevensville School District is now serving breakfast to students in the classroom as part of the “Breakfast After the Bell” program launched by Governor Steve Bullock.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) certified school nutrition program reduces childhood hunger by giving students the options of purchasing a bagged breakfast or receiving the same breakfast for free, if they qualify for the free and reduced lunch program. The students are then allowed to eat breakfast in their classroom as the school day begins.

Stevensville Elementary Principal Jessica Shourd sees the program as highly beneficial to her K-3 students. She has seen a 77 percent increase in participation in the program.

“We have more kids eating breakfast and that helps significantly with their learning,” Shourd said. “Students can’t be ready to learn if they haven’t been fed.”

The school focuses on the hierarchy of needs as described in Abraham Maslow's psychology paper written in 1943. The idea is meeting physical needs first for a student to come to school ready to learn.

“They can’t focus and be ready unless they are fed, unless they’ve had good rest and unless they are cared for,” Shourd said. “The school does a lot of the Maslow’s pieces and making sure they’ve had breakfast is a big priority.”

The big temptation for young kids to skip breakfast is seeing the fun happening on the playground versus going to the cafeteria for breakfast.

“You’re more apt to go to the playground with your friends which is what I think was going on last year,” Shourd said. “They weren’t getting breakfast.”

The process of Breakfast After the Bell is that food serving staff takes the cart of milk, fruit and food to the school and bags it up in the hall. As students come in from morning recess they walk past the food cart, pick up their bagged breakfast and eat in their classroom. Breakfast takes 10 to 20 minutes depending on the age of the students, how many kids are eating and how much assistance they require.

Although breakfast in the classroom takes away instructional time at the beginning of the day teachers are supporting the program because it is meeting student needs, improving student behavior and resulting in higher test scores.

On Tuesday, in Valerie Pateman’s third-grade class, students ate while she took attendance, lunch count and other beginning-of-the-day tasks.

Shourd said needs are growing.

“At schools every resource is tapped out and we are seeing more and more kids not getting their needs met — not enough food, not enough rest and maybe not enough attention and food is something we can do,” she said. “Kids that come from homes that normally eat breakfast their parents are seeing how nutritious our breakfasts are and letting their kids eat here.”

At Stevensville, the program that potentially feeds 280 kids every morning began with pre-packaged foods but is now moving toward healthier, wholesome, homemade items.

“We need students to start their day with protein in order to learn and we know that and that’s happening for kids,” Shourd said.

The funding for Breakfast After the Bell came from a mini-grant from the Montana No Kid Hungry program.

Jenna Henning, director of Stevensville School Food Service, has written grants and is exploring healthier food sources. She is increasing meals prepared on site and will expand options of salads, homemade bread, soups and main courses prepared with locally sourced items, continuing to meet nutritional requirements set by the USDA.

Grab and go breakfasts are served in all three buildings.

On Wednesday, Henning was notified that she received a second Montana No Kid Hungry grant that will pay to have breakfast for the elementary school delivered into the classrooms.

The food services offers choices that meet the USDA requirements. To improve quality and benefit the local economy, Henning is purchasing beef raised in the school district and processed by a USDA certified plant. Other foods come locally or regionally unless they make it onsite — bread from Wheat Montana, local milk from Montana cows and Tillamook yogurt.

The November average for lunch was 450 meals but the count is different every day and Henning said that is the challenge.

“It’s a matter of getting our counts consistent so we know how much we need and working on time management so we have enough time to do breakfast and lunch,” Henning said. “The goal is to get the majority of food made on-site. We are working to educate the students on healthy choices and our required meal content.”

This week the lunch menu was: Monday — homemade pizza pasta with whole grain noodles; Tuesday — homemade beef and bean taco salad; Wednesday — homemade chicken chili with homemade whole grain rolls; and Thursday — homemade chef salad with homemade ranch, fresh sliced local apples and Wheat Montana bread with butter.

Henning said that with the new nutrition changes she has added more and different tasks for her staff.

“It’s a bit of a learning curve,” she said. “We are trying to keep on time management to get everything done. So far, the breakfast sandwiches with sausage and egg have been a huge hit, they love those. We made 310 of them last time and I don’t think we had any left.”

School Board member Sarah Armijo initially had concerns about the food service changes but now, after receiving details about the USDA meal requirements and the complexity of menus, supports the nutrition changes.

“I love the fact that our district is supporting this effort to improve the nutrition program while supporting local business,” Armijo said.

Superintendent Bob Moore said the food services changes are positive.

“For students to learn, they must first have their basic needs met,” he said. “If they are hungry or worried about their next meal, it is hard to concentration on the basics of learning.”

Moore said a strong nutrition program is important with the Stevensville School District’s 47-50 percent free and reduced lunch population.

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