Grab 'n' go breakfast better serves middle school children

December 06, 2004

Crunched for time, many parents are sending their children off to school without breakfast, but a trial program instituted in a Pennsylvania school may not only feed those in a rush, but better provide for those entitled to free and reduced price meals, according to Penn State researchers.

"Most school foodservice directors view the School Breakfast Program as much more than a program for children from economically disadvantaged homes," says Dr. Martha T. Conklin, associate professor of hospitality management. "The directors work to increase breakfast participation rates because of the importance of breakfast to healthy eating."

The researchers suggest that every child should eat breakfast because skipping breakfast is associated with less-healthful eating and in some studies, skipping breakfast was associated with childhood obesity. However, for those entitled to free or reduced price breakfast, skipping breakfast may be preferable to being singled out by walking to the cafeteria for what is perceived as a welfare meal. Other children may avoid the perceived stigma as well.

In one State College, Pa., middle school, 15 percent or 136 students were entitled to free or reduce priced breakfast, but only 4 percent of the total student population ate breakfast at school.

Conklin; Peter L. Bordi, associate professor of hospitality management; and Meagan A. Schaper, foodservice director, State College Area School District, approached the low breakfast problem by focusing on a way to improve service anonymity, as well as the effectiveness of the School Breakfast Program. Reporting in a recent issue of the Journal of Child Nutrition & Management, the researchers described their piloting of a Grab 'n' Go breakfast service.

They normally served breakfast in the cafeteria which is fully visible via windows from the hallway and administrative atrium. While the students all paid through a prepaid debit card system that masked who was paying for meals, only those going to eat breakfast were allowed into the cafeteria in the morning, so students assumed that those eating breakfast were receiving a welfare meal. The researchers decided to set up the grab 'n' go food cart in the school's atrium and to suspend cafeteria breakfast service. Prior discussion had shown that some teachers were concerned about garbage, the mess and disruption of the first class of the day. Surprisingly, the custodian appeared unconcerned with the extra work, weighing it against the benefit to the students.

For the program to work, cabling for the computerized cash register was installed in the atrium and the Dairy Council donated a milk cooler. The school already had a portable food service line.

The researchers chose to test the new program during the last month of school so it would end naturally. The kickoff was free breakfast for everyone delivered to the classrooms on the first day and then grab 'n' go breakfast in the atrium the rest of the month.

"The project team considered the grab 'n' go service a success," says Conklin. "The school foodservice director favored continuing the grab 'n' go service the following school year."

Grab 'n' go breakfast, while not placing breakfast in the hands of every student, did increase breakfast consumption. The total number of breakfast eaters increased from an average 35 students to 81 students. The average number of free breakfast eaters increased by five and the subsidized eaters doubled from 2 to 4. The largest increase occurred among those paying full price for breakfast.

The following year, the school increased the breakfast price by 50 cents. The average number of breakfasters decreased to sixty-seven, which was still twice the number eating breakfast before grab 'n' go. Among subsidized students, the average number increased to 11.

"These findings reinforce issues of access and anonymity for economically disadvantaged children," says Conklin.

Penn State

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