By Bethany Bray
---- — SALEM — It’s just past 8 a.m. in Jessica Eveleth’s fourth- and fifth-grade classroom at Carlton Elementary School. Students are sitting at their desks, eating bowls of cereal and sipping juice boxes as they read copies of Natalie Babbitt’s novel “Tuck Everlasting.”
Carlton is one of four Salem schools that have adopted a new breakfast-in-the-classroom program this fall. A free breakfast is provided for every student, every morning.
The meal is folded into the classroom’s morning routine. The kids munch on muffins, cereal, fruit, yogurt and other foods while they read, work on lessons or listen to morning announcements.
The program, funded by a $50,000 grant from the EOS Foundation, was adopted in September at Carlton. Bentley, Bates and Horace Mann schools started serving breakfast in classrooms in October.
They’ve seen a marked increased in the number of students eating breakfast, as well as a ripple effect of other benefits. Children are better able to concentrate, are better behaved and make fewer trips to the nurse with hunger-related ailments such as headaches and stomachaches.
“In the upper grades, in particular, teachers have noticed they’re gaining minutes. ... It’s a working breakfast, and in that sense, we’re gaining time on instruction,” Carlton Principal Jean-Marie Kahn said.
Carlton’s Assistant Principal, Teegan VonBurn, said the program has another benefit: Eating breakfast all together mimics a family meal.
“It’s been a positive thing socially and emotionally,” VonBurn said. “It’s just a nice start to the day; it feels like being at home.”
The program replaces the traditional method of serving breakfast in the school cafeteria. Students weren’t eating breakfast in the cafeteria — even though it was free to all students at Carlton, Bates, Bentley and Horace Mann — for a variety of reasons. Sometimes buses ran late, or the kids wanted to stay outside before school and play with their friends, said Deborah Jeffers, food services director for Salem Public Schools.
At Carlton, an average of 85 percent of students ate breakfast last month, compared with 47 percent last year.
Even with fewer participants last year, having the kids eat together in cafeteria was “a little chaotic,” Kahn said. The classroom is a much smaller and more controlled setting.
And since students are starting the day in a calmer environment, Kahn said, “We’ve noticed a significant drop in social/emotional issues. I cannot even explain the difference. The kids are responding to it very positively.”
Students have eaten 11,000 more breakfasts this October than last October at the four schools where breakfast in the classroom is offered, Jeffers said.
“Kids who wouldn’t normally eat in the cafeteria are eating now,” said Eveleth, as she watched her students select breakfast items and take them to their desks.
“Kids can get really grouchy when they’re hungry,” she added, smiling.
Jeffers plans to apply for another grant for next school year and introduce the breakfast program to all of the district’s kindergarten through eighth-grade schools. Logistically, the program won’t work in the middle or high school because they don’t have a homeroom period, Jeffers said.
The fall, classroom breakfasts have been offered to roughly 1,100 students, between Bates, Bentley, Horace Mann and Carlton schools.
The $50,000 grant covers program startup costs, including coolers and cleaning supplies for each classroom and the hiring of a part-time grant coordinator. Salem was one of five school districts in Massachusetts selected for an EOS Foundation grant, Jeffers said.
At Carlton, cafeteria staff have coolers for each classroom pre-packed and ready to go as students arrive. Breakfast is served and eaten in classrooms as students arrive. Once finished, breakfast trash is picked up by custodial staff, and the coolers are returned to the cafeteria, where they are cleaned and packed for the next day.
After close to three months, the process is a “well-oiled machine,” VonBurn said.
In general, the district sees a large number of students coming to school without having eaten breakfast, Jeffers said.
The program’s success has truly been a team effort, said Jeffers, from the cafeteria workers who pack the breakfast coolers every morning to the teachers who have adapted their morning routine to include breakfast. Even the students help, by taking turns picking up and returning breakfast coolers each morning during classroom cleanup.
“They’ve done an amazing job, across the board, supporting it and making it work,” said Patrice Toomey, the district’s breakfast in the classroom grant coordinator.
Jeffers and Toomey said they’re hoping to expand the program’s food choices in the coming months, possibly including a hot breakfast offering.
The program is meant to be self-sustainable, covered by the state reimbursements the district receives for each meal served, Jeffers said.
“This (EOS) Foundation wants to prove to everyone that this can be done across Massachusetts,” she said. “With a high participation rate, it can pay for itself, keep going without grant money.”
Bethany Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.
breakfast rates Percentage of children who ate breakfast in the cafeteria in October 2012, and the percentage who ate breakfast in their classrooms in October 2013. School 2012 2013 Bates 21 65 Bentley 50 71 Carlton 47 85 Horace Mann 26 77 Source: Salem Public Schools food services office Note: percentages are averages for the month of October