Anti-Hunger Advocates in New Hampshire Have a New Focus: The School Breakfast

Under the “breakfast after the bell” model, schools are encouraged to allow breakfast to be eaten in classrooms.

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For many New Hampshire public school students, getting breakfast at school is not a priority.

The Granite State has one of the largest divides in the country between the number of school breakfasts eaten and the number of school lunches eaten, according to numbers from the Food Research and Action Center. While an average of 95,337 students per day ate school-provided lunch in the 2021-2022 school year, fewer than half of those students – 45,192 – also ate breakfast, the center found in a 2023 report.

That ratio puts New Hampshire in the bottom 16 states in the country. Now, educators and child anti-hunger advocates are urging Granite State schools to increase their promotion of school breakfasts and make it easier for students to eat them.

“School breakfast has maybe a bad rap,” said Amy Hollar, the SNAP-Ed director at the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension. “… It’s better than it used to be. And it can get even better the more of us that embrace it and work together to make school meals a priority.”

This school year, nine school districts are competing in the School Breakfast Challenge, in which each district will attempt to increase the number of students eating breakfast by the highest percentage by March.

Organized by New Hampshire Hunger Solutions, an advocacy group, as well as the UNH Cooperative Extension and the New England Dairy Council, the competition aims to empower and encourage schools to launch campaigns promoting breakfast.

Educators and child anti-hunger advocates say school breakfasts help increase nutrition, boost attentiveness, and increase reimbursement to schools.

“We know that kids that eat school breakfast miss less school,” said Hollar. “They’re more alert and focused.”

The competition has been accompanied by a series of webinars to give school administrators ideas on how to boost breakfast participation. And it follows a template crafted in part by the University of Minnesota, which helped spearhead a four-year project in that state to do the same.

Riona Corr, deputy director of New Hampshire Hunger Solutions, said school meals are important in making sure students have consistent energy throughout the day.

And she said bringing in more students for breakfast would increase the amount they are reimbursed, which could help address school lunch debt.

The Food Research and Action Center found that New Hampshire schools could collectively receive $8.6 million more in school meal reimbursements per year if 70 percent of the students who eat lunch at school also ate breakfast.

“Say there’s 50 percent of the school who’s participating in free and reduced lunch,” Corr said. “Why is only 8 percent of those kids participating in free breakfast?”

For schools looking to expand breakfasts, educators have strategies. Schools should make the food more convenient to access and provide more flexibility to students about when they can eat it, they say.

Advocates are pushing “breakfast after the bell,” an approach in which schools allow students to pick up and eat breakfasts after the first class begins. Many schools require students eating breakfast to do so before that first period, which researchers say discourages many from doing it.

“A lot of schools – nationwide, not just in New Hampshire – are allowing breakfast before the first bell, and then not allowing kids to eat afterward,” said Corr.

Under the “breakfast after the bell” model, schools are encouraged to allow breakfast to be eaten in the classrooms, or in an area more convenient than the cafeteria. That could include tables with to-go food bags near entrances, or grab-and-go carts in the hallway.

And students are given more time to eat those meals, even if class has begun.

Meanwhile the UNH Cooperative Extension has developed a toolkit for “nudges,” or techniques school administrators can use to remind students about the breakfasts and encourage them to eat. The tips range from ways to incorporate nutrition advice into classroom curricula to pre-written jokes about breakfast that can be read out over the loudspeakers.

The challenge offers schools three participation tiers with increasing levels of commitment. Tier one is deploying the “‘nudges”; tier two involves attending New Hampshire Hunger Solutions’ webinar series; and tier three involves developing an action plan for a broader campaign.

For schools putting in the effort, the challenge has a modest cash prize for the largest increase in school breakfast take up: The Dairy Council has donated $1,000, which will be distributed to two of the winners, Corr said.

But the competition is only a piece of the overall effort, advocates say. The Cooperative Extension and New Hampshire Hunger Solutions are working with school food service directors and wellness committees to develop campaigns tailored to each district’s challenges and needs, Corr said.

“Where is your barrier? Is it administration? Is it teachers? Is it students?” Corr said.

Those challenges can be hard for some schools to overcome. In some cases, low cafeteria staffing levels can hamper some of the more innovative ideas. Other times, custodial staff will raise concerns with additional cleaning needed if schools allow eating in classrooms.

Students face stigmas associated with school breakfasts. And parents might assume that the breakfasts are not nutritious, thinking back to their own childhood experiences.

All of those hurdles can be overcome, Corr said, but some are more entrenched than others. It’s why the campaign is focusing on nudges as a low-cost way to get involved without overextending staff resources.

In continuing its campaign, New Hampshire advocates are following the footsteps of the University of Minnesota, which in 2013 launched its own breakfast promotion program in 16 high schools across the state.

Nutritionists at the University of Minnesota kept tabs on the schools, sorting some into control groups that received fewer resources and others into experimental groups that received budgets to launch ad campaigns.

One school took on a Hunger Games theme in an homage to the film series that had just opened in theaters, complete with lighthearted videos. Others tried taste tests where kitchen staff would experiment with new variations of recipes like banana bread and students would vote on their favorites.

“There was one school where the admin was, oh my gosh, 110 percent on board,” said Mary Schroeder, an extension educator for health and nutrition at the University of Minnesota. That school produced a video that included every student in the school, she added.

In one of the most innovative and effective strategies, several schools offered free breakfast for all students one day a week, carving out money in its budget to do so. That allowed everyone to try the food without fear of stigma, and helped to combat negative perceptions students may have had about its quality, Schroeder said.

“When they did their pre surveys … many children said that they didn’t like the taste of school breakfast,” Schroeder said. “But then when they asked other questions, they realized a lot of the kids who didn’t like the taste of school breakfast had never eaten school breakfast.”

The program, which lasted four years, produced strong results: The schools in the experimental group that received funding and pursued the recommended strategies saw a 49 percent higher increase in breakfast takeup than those that didn’t, according to a report from the extension. And the extra takeup in meals brought in between $90 to $489 per day in reimbursement money to the schools, after accounting for the program start-up costs.

This year, Minnesota lawmakers made the breakfast pitch much easier: The legislature passed a universal school breakfast law making them free for all students.

New Hampshire does not pay for universal school lunches or breakfasts; students who want breakfast will need to pay full price if their family makes more than 185 percent of the federal poverty level.

But advocates in the Granite State say strong efforts by schools can create a word-of-mouth effect that can get more kids buying the breakfasts anyway, benefitting the school and themselves.

“We want to make sure that we can promote a culture where it’s great to eat breakfast at school, because for some kids that’s the only place they’re gonna get it,” said Hollar.

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.

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