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New school breakfast program proves a hit with GCS students

GUILFORD—More Guilford Central School students are starting the day with a good breakfast, and as of last month, some of them are eating it in the classroom, thanks to some new state and national initiatives.

“Our school has made eating breakfast a priority for students,” said Guilford Central School Farm to School Coordinator Hanna Jenkins.

“When breakfast is offered in the cafeteria, [fewer] than one-third of students eat the morning meal. We’re hoping that by introducing breakfast into the classroom, participation will increase,” she said.

GCS enrolled in Breakfast After the Bell Challenge. a program from Hunger Free Vermont and the New England Dairy and Food Council.

The program urges schools “to look at their breakfast programs for all students,” not just those from low-income families, Jenkins said.

In addition, GCS participates in the nationwide Fuel Up to Play 60 initiative, a student-led, in-school physical activity and nutrition program, and the school received a grant from the New England Dairy & Food Council and the Dairy Farmers of Vermont.

Better nutrition for all

These resources all add up to big changes to the breakfast program.

“Formerly, we had a grab-and-go breakfast in the cafeteria. Kids coming off the bus had a few minutes before class started to get their breakfast,” said Jenkins.

“It worked okay, but I wanted to increase participation among all kids” from all income levels, she added.

“We found some students were not eating at home for different reasons. Some came from food-insecure homes. Also, kids tend to eat later in the morning,” Jenkins said.

Her solution was to secure the Dairy Council grant to purchase carts and coolers and offer breakfast in the classroom during the first 15 minutes of class each day. This program began the first week of October.

All students who qualify for free or reduced-priced meals qualify for the breakfast program, so the morning meal is automatically provided for them when they arrive to class, “whether they want it or not,” said Jenkins.

Children who do not qualify for subsidized meals can opt in to the breakfast program, too, Jenkins said, and their caregivers can pre-pay for the meals.

“This 15 minutes of breakfast time is social time, too,” said Jenkins — it gives all students the experience of sharing a meal with others. Some students with busy caregivers might not have that opportunity, she said.

By working with the Dairy Council, GCS can participate in the National Meals Program, which helps the school’s chefs set dietary guidelines for the student meals, ensuring they have adequate amounts of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and protein from dairy sources.

“When the kids eat at school, they eat nutrient-dense foods,” said Jenkins, offering the example of smoothies, in which the school chef includes kale.

“It’s amazing. The kids are all about kale,” Jenkins said, noting she and other school staff helped the students start a “smoothie garden” where they grow that which they will blend.

The yogurt for the smoothies and for the kids’ breakfast yogurt parfaits comes from Commonwealth Dairy, located just a few miles from the school.

Other items the students get for breakfast include bagels with cream cheese, fruit, and milk. Jenkins said children with dietary restrictions receive alternative meals, but always with the same nutritional content as the kids eating the standard meals.

In just over a month since the program started, Jenkins said school staff notice a difference.

“The chef said the number of kids participating is going up, and the teachers say so, too. Even the full-paying kids are now eating breakfast at school,” she said.

Looking toward Universal School Meals

Another incentive for offering breakfast in classrooms is it moves GCS “toward the goal of Universal [School] Meals, where all students are fed.”

Right now, GCS doesn’t qualify, although Jenkins said it’s close.

The Hunger Free Vermont Universal School Meals program provides free breakfast and lunch, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to all students, regardless of family income.

But to enroll, 40 percent of the students have to be on the Direct Certification list, meaning that their caregivers receive 3SquaresVT food assistance or are homeless, or that the children are in foster care.

Although approximately 51 percent of GCS students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, that does not qualify the school for the program.

“We can provide more meals” through other programs, Jenkins said, “while trying to slowly build the case for Universal Meals.”

Although Jenkins said she was “definitely the person advocating the most” for the new breakfast program, “many folks at the school are on board.”

She noted that “feeding our kids” is a value shared by GCS faculty and staff.

But Jenkins said it’s also about “feeding them the highest-quality food, including food they grew and harvested themselves” at Tapalou Guilds, her organic farm on Sweet Pond Road.

Jenkins noted another example of GCS’s commitment to serving quality, local food to its students: all beef served at GCS comes from a dairy cow from Franklin Farm’s organically raised herd.

“You never know the effect that eating breakfast at school and growing their own food will have on a child,” Jenkins said. “We’re providing opportunities for kids to become empowered about their food choices.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #384 (Wednesday, November 23, 2016). This story appeared on page B6.

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