School creates morning “nutrition break” for all students

Tillamook Junior High School develops innovative method to increase breakfast participation

It turns out 13-year-old kids don’t care much about breakfast. Try reasoning with them about the benefits of starting their day with a belly full of nutritious food and you will likely get a blank stare, or at most an eye roll.

But research supports what teachers and school officials already knew – kids who start the day with a healthy breakfast are ready to learn. They are more willing to participate in class, have better school attendance, make fewer visits to the nurse’s office, and have fewer behavioral problems than kids who don’t start their day with a healthy breakfast.

Tillamook Junior High School, in Tillamook Oregon, had been serving breakfast before school to about 50 of its 370 students per day before Craig Huckins arrived as the District Nutrition Services Department Manager. Shortly after his arrival, he and Principal Melissa Radcliffe began working on ideas to expand participation. They decided an alternative breakfast solution targeted to all students might be the best fit.

As students get older, schools that offer breakfast generally see a decrease in participation. Older kids are more in control of their morning schedules and less dependent on parents. They’re busy with before school activities and friends and don’t have as much time or interest in eating breakfast. Because of this, some schools have begun offering a “second chance breakfast” or breakfast after the bell.

Huckins had implemented similar programs in other school districts and knew the value they could bring to kids. He thought junior high school was the right age to start. “We really wanted to reinforce the importance of a healthy morning meal for everyone,” Huckins said.

They called their solution a “nutrition break.” For 15 minutes, in between first and second periods, all students head to the cafeteria and choose from a variety of healthy food options.

Everything about the program is designed to appeal to the sensibilities of 12-14-year-old kids. By making it free for everyone, it removes the stigma associated with a free meal. Sitting down and eating together in the cafeteria encourages more kids to participate.

Knowing that kids this age will likely move on if it takes more than a few minutes to get through the line, they added a second line to get kids through faster. They also positioned the lines right inside the cafeteria doors so when the kids come in they see the food, and not their friends, first. Students have up to 15 selections a day to choose from, all meeting USDA school meal nutrition guidelines.

Within just a few weeks of starting the program, the Junior High was consistently serving well over 200 kids per day. This was four times the number of students served using only the traditional before the bell format.

So far teachers have been fully supportive. In fact, a survey a few weeks into the program showed 100% of teachers agreed that the nutrition break had a positive impact on student’s attention to instruction. Teachers have been telling Principal Radcliffe that students are more alert, and have better retention. They’ve also seen fewer kids asking for snacks in the classrooms, which many teachers had been providing for hungry students with their own money.

A full evaluation will be completed at the end of the school year. The goal is to get students accustomed to the nutrition break as a regular part of their school day and hopefully expand the program to Tillamook High School, moving the program with these students as they graduate from junior high.

Huckins knows this project would never have happened without support from the principal, teachers, day custodian, school food services staff and superintendent - all dedicated to ensuring kids have access to high-quality food at school. When Principal Radcliffe pitched the idea to the school superintendent, Curt Shelly, he and the school board agreed to cover the cost of breakfast during a trial period for students who aren’t eligible for free school meals.

“While we have a fairly high percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced school meals,” said Huckins, “we know there is a gap in families who may not qualify for free or reduced cost meals, but still don’t make enough to comfortably provide regular healthy meals.”

One in seven households in Oregon are food insecure and if you look at families with children, that number increases to one in four households facing hunger risk.

In 2015, the Oregon legislature passed a bill allowing schools to serve breakfast after the bell for up to 15 minutes and still be considered instruction time. In 2019, Governor Kate Brown signed the Student Success Act, which will help expand participation in school breakfast and lunch programs. This legislation will require schools that have more than 70% of students eligible for free and reduced meals to implement a breakfast after the bell program.

Huckins is excited about this unique approach to helping adolescents get the nutrition they need to do well in school now and thrive as adults later. Today’s adolescents are tomorrow’s parents. The nutritional stores they develop now will impact not only their own health, but that of the next generation as well.

Oregon can be a leader in ensuring our adolescents get the nutrition they need to develop, do well academically and thrive as healthy adults later. Innovative programs like this that emphasize the importance of nutrition can serve as an example for other states to follow.