Universal In-Class Breakfast: Can We Feed Hungry Kids Without Overfeeding Affluent Kids?

Here’s an issue I’ve been wanting to write about for a while:  the way in which universal, in-class breakfast programs like the one in my district (Houston ISD), can create a conflict between two equally legitimate goals:  alleviating childhood hunger and preventing childhood obesity.

The National School Lunch Program allows schools to provide breakfast, but it’s long been known that when breakfast is served in the cafeteria, economically disadvantaged students often don’t eat it, either out of fear of stigma or because they have no time to get to the cafeteria before school starts.

To remedy this problem, some districts, particularly those in large urban areas, have adopted universal, in-class breakfast programs whereby all students are able to obtain and eat a free breakfast in their classrooms at the start of the school day.   At my child’s elementary school, this is accomplished by placing several meal carts in the hallways before the first bell rings.  Children who want the meal obtain their breakfast card (which is different from their lunch card) from a volunteer-staffed table and present it to the cafeteria worker manning a cart.  The food is then taken to the child’s desk and eaten in the first few minutes of class time.

When our superintendent, Dr. Terry Grier, first instituted this program here in Houston, it was (and remains for some) a highly controversial move.  There have been legitimate concerns about food waste, sanitation problems, lost instructional time, and the quality of the food served (though it has improved somewhat since the early days of the program, when the inclusion of daily animal crackers in the breakfast was what actually motivated me to start this blog.)  On the other hand, I’m told that principals at Houston schools with large populations of economically disadvantaged children enthusiastically laud the program, citing increased attendance, reduced tardiness and fewer discipline problems.

But one of the complaints I most often hear from parents at more affluent schools is that their kids are “double-dipping” at breakfast, eating a full meal at home and then eating some or all of the school meal as well.  In an age when childhood obesity is a real concern, giving kids two breakfasts a day is obviously problematic.  And apparently the New York City Council has slowed the roll-out of in-class breakfast in that city for just that reason.  The New York Times reported last Friday:

 The city’s health department hit the pause button after a study found that the Breakfast in the Classroom program, now used in 381 of the city’s 1,750 schools, was problematic because some children might be “inadvertently taking in excess calories by eating in multiple locations” — in other words, having a meal at home, or snacking on the way to school, then eating again in school.

It seems to me that there’s an obvious solution to this problem, one my child’s elementary school principal has employed from the start:  if parents don’t want their child eating the school breakfast for any reason, they have the option to have the child’s breakfast card removed from the stack of available meal cards; without the card, no meal can be obtained.  And if the parent changes his or her mind on a given day, he or she can send a signed note to that effect and a meal will be served.

But what’s troubled me for some time is how rarely this solution seems to be employed in my district.  On a purely anecdotal basis I’ve been told by many parents that the choice to opt their children out of breakfast has never been offered to them by their respective principals.  And the district has done nothing (of which I’m aware) to make the option widely known to the public.

And that leads to the question of money.  School food service departments generally welcome universal breakfast programs because they bring in more federal reimbursement dollars, particularly in districts with large numbers of children who qualify for free or reduced price lunches (true of over 80% of students in Houston ISD.)  As the Food Research and Action Center noted in a a comprehensive report on school breakfast:

If states could increase participation so they reach 60 children with breakfast for every 100 that also eat lunch, FRAC estimates that an additional 2.4 million low-income children would be added to the breakfast program and states would have received an additional $583 million in child nutrition funding.

Thus, districts with in-class breakfast programs have an economic incentive to serve as many meals as possible, regardless of whether some meals are being served to kids who have no need for it — and whose parents would greatly prefer they not partake of it.

I’m going to inquire further in my district about the availability of a breakfast opt-out and will report back here.  And for those of you in districts with universal, in-class breakfast, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the program.


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  1. says

    Very interesting. I wasn’t aware there were districts that were making an in-class breakfast available to everyone. The two districts I’ve lived in both get kids to school via bus early enough to have a quick 10-15 minute breakfast at school. The school breakfasts aren’t terrible, but at $1.50 a pop, my kids eat at home.

    What actually gets me is the daily snack time. My kids (1st grade and kindergarten) both have daily snacks. My daughter (1st grade) has it about 90 minutes before lunch and my son (Kindergarten) has it about 1 hours after lunch.

    This is easy enough with my son as each student takes their own snack. I can pack him something reasonably nutritious knowing that he’ll have eaten his full “from-home” lunch before he even gets to snack.

    My daughter on the other hand has a class that takes turns bringing in snack for the whole class. A sampling of what’s been brought in the past month…powdered sugar donuts, little debbie’s, hostess snack cakes, pop tarts, etc… So it’s no surprise when my daughter comes home with a barely eaten lunch. Why would she eat the healthy lunch I pack her 90 minutes after she’s had two ho-hos. (Which she ate only two hours after I fed her breakfast and sent her in.)

    The last two months, my daughter has opted to take in Clementine’s to share for her snack day. Yay her…but it doesn’t really put a dent in the “let’s feed kids at every turn and it might as well be junk” mentality. :(

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Oh, Jennifer – I and many TLT readers share your pain. We’ve talked about the parent-supplied snack in many iterations, most recently the “soccer snack” arena. You might want to read this post (and a follow-up to it) if you haven’t already. Thanks for sharing here.

      • RD in Houston says

        You should also check out square meals.org. These foods brought in for snacks also fall under the “competitive foods” umbrella and have to meet very stringent nutritional guidelines. I would be willing to bet that the donuts, etc. don’t qualify!

    • Uly says

      Which is why we never have bothered to inform the teachers that my nieces’ dairy intolerance is really not that bad. If it keeps them from being fed cupcakes and cheez-its, well, so much the better.

      (They DO have a dairy intolerance, but in small amounts it’s pretty harmless.)

  2. says

    Our small school district in rural Nebraska does breakfast before school, and although my girls do not go, I would say that it is a nice blend of students (not just economically disadvantaged kids) and works fairly well. There are no snacks served in the school system except for in Kindergarten toward the end of the day.

    The school district in the town just west of us does a universal “snack” for all students about 9:15 in the morning of apples and bagels. They role carts down the hallways much the same way that you were talking about. When I was in the school a few months ago presenting to the middle school students, it appeared that this logistically worked well. The students that wanted either an apple or a bagel could grab one on the way to the next class, and then were able to eat them at the beginning of class. The day that I was there, only about 25% of the kids seemed to be taking advantage of the snack and most of those students had opted for the apple.

    To me, perhaps the bigger issue, is teaching our kids responsibility when it comes to choosing and eating food. We need to empower our kids to make good food decisions (starting at a very young age). I have three daughters (age 12, 10 and 7) and there are times that I am terribly frustrated with some food choices that they make—however, I also think that it is important for me to let them take an active role in those choices. We have lots of family discussions about the different food groups, and when I pick them up from school I always ask them to tell me what they ate at school and which food group it fell under. Before we discuss after school snacks, we talk about which food groups they need to eat from to have a balanced nutrition for the day. By including them in the choices (rather than dictating exactly what they eat all of the time), I am helping them to learn to take personal responsibility toward make good choices. My girls are all athletic and participate in many different sports—they are learning that they must properly fuel their bodies so that their bodies can perform well. That’s a great “life lesson”.


    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Anne: As my kids grow older and move toward more “food independence” I think a lot about what you’re talking about at the end of your comment: have I done enough to arm them with good information so they can make sound food choices in a world that often works against that goal? Have I been too dictatorial and not informative enough? (In fact, I have a future post to share about a conversation I had with my daughter yesterday on just that topic.) But it sounds like you’re doing a great job – thanks for sharing here.

    • Kate says

      I guess the problem I’d have with a program like this at the middle school level, is that you’d have the distraction of eating during a very important class for some kids, but not others. For instance, if you had math class at 9:15 am, I think the kids should be paying attention, and not eating…while a kid who has math at another time might not have that distraction.

      For teachers that are teaching in middle school, ones that are teaching classes like band/orchestra, science, or computer classes which might go on during the snack time…perhaps they have firm rules about not wanting food/drink around potentially expensive equipment…where would their opinions be factored in?

  3. Alicia says

    This subject is a sore spot for me. While I recognize kids need nourishment to do well in school, and our society benefits greatly by providing a good education to all, I strongly believe we need to separate the education – free meal link, for many reasons. First, there is a lot of money wasted – feeding kids whose parents do have the means to feed their children. Second, as you well know, the nutritional level of school meals has not been good, so what are we teaching our kids? Third, there is way too much incentive to the schools to have more and more kids on the program. I don’t see them ever wanting to let other parents know they can opt-out. We need to disconnect the free meals from the Title 1 dollars. There also tends to be great oversight in how these programs are administered, with no universal standards in place, and nobody to follow-up on knowing who should, and should-not be receiving this assistance. Schools are way to happy to have people remain on the books longer than needed.

    This is not to say we shouldn’t be taking care of the nutritional needs for those kids who truly need it. As a country, we need to fix our programs that administer WIC and food stamps etc. We could also under those same guidelines that determine who is eligible, find a way to provide school lunches, and breakfasts to children who need it. I know that food stamps alone won’t do it as we have some seriously irresponsible parents who don’t use the money as intended. I often think – how hard is it to make a PBJ to send to school, but I know, for some families, even that won’t happen, and it is the kids who suffer. There needs to be one program determining who is eligible, and then some way to ensure kids get their lunch at school if they are eligible.

    Let the schools TEACH, including teaching what is and is not healthy food. But leave the providing of meals to a different program. I’m happy for tax dollars to go to those who need it, but there is too much waste in the way to program is being handled. And I hadn’t even considered before that free breakfasts are going to kids who have already eaten at home.

    I should also add, as a parent of a child who is severely allergic to milk, I would not be happy with a policy that allows kids to eat breakfast in the classroom. We don’t have that in our school, but snack time is hard enough to deal with – kids with Cheeto hands is very dangerous in the classroom. To have to deal with kids eating breakfast which is quite likely to contain milk, margarine, cheese – that would be a nightmare for kids with allergies.

    • teri says

      I work in a school lunch program so I think I can clear up some confusion. The government program that oversees the school food is NSLP (national school lunch program). They provide the rules schools must follow regarding what types of food and how much are to be given to the students.
      In order to put a student on the program the parent fills out an application providing the number of peoople who live in the household and how much income comes in. Or they provide a valid food stamp number. According to the rules a student who qualifies for free/reduced meals must remain on the program for the whole school year-even if they wouldn’t qualify at some point.
      Auditors come every few years to make sure schools are doing what they are suppose to be doing. They go over the applications as well as go into the schools to see production records and watch the lunches get served to the students. The entire program is dictated by the governement not the schools themselves.

      • Bettina Elias Siegel says

        Teri: Yes, but in this type of universal program there is no such paperwork for individual students. Everyone is issued a meal card and everyone gets a free breakfast regardless of economic need.

        • teri says

          Understood, I was responding to Alicia’s post about school free lunch programs in general. In her post it did not sound to me like she was talking about the universal program but the regular school lunch program. Apologies if I misunderstood her post.

  4. Kate says

    We have universal breakfast, but before the school day starts.

    At the elementary level, for the most part it sounds like an okay program. At our school though if you have one of the “specials” like PE, music, or art as your very first class of the day…it would seem like there would be some logistical issues there. I can’t see subtracting time away from class in junior high or high school though..it seems like they would have to add time to the school day to make this happen.

    I have one comment though, and I don’t mean it to be snarky. It has been talked about before on the blog about eliminating in class treats in part because some kids might not be be able to eat them for a variety of reasons, thus they would be excluded. Here you’d have a situation where you’d have kids that were excluded on a daily basis. How is one situation different from another, in terms of whatever the potential ramifications the child might feel from being excluded?

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Kate: What a thought provoking question! (And I didn’t take it as snarky at all.) As longtime readers know, since starting TLT I’ve moved more in favor of totally food-free classrooms, and here I am supporting an in-class food program! :-)

      I guess for me there’s a categorical difference between a sugary “treat” that gets kids really excited — and is brought with the intention that all will share it, without consent of the other parents — versus breakfast, which is not that exciting, and where there should be (as discussed in this post) total parental control over access. Also, one of the reasons I dislike in-class treats is the allergen issue, and that’s not a problem with school food as, at least in HISD, a child’s special allergy-related needs are routinely accommodated.

      But thank you for getting me thinking!

      • Jinni says

        But it looks like these ‘breakfasts’ are sugary treats. Cereal (I can’t imagine it’s one without added sugar), and juice (fructose without the fiber). Without some solid protein – real eggs, real meat, and milk with full fat (these are children whose brains are growing) – it amounts to no more than junk food to me.

        I feel like we treat our students like prisoners. If you take food from the government – you have to eat whatever crap they give you. What does it say about our society that we feed the poorest among us awful food?

        Lunch is as far as I think the free food should go unless it’s better. And I strongly agree that classrooms should be food, treat, snack free.

        • Uly says

          Oh, no, Jinni. Prisoners actually are fed pretty well. Feeding them badly might lead to riots, and you really can’t have that.

  5. Betsey says

    Too much obsession with school cafeteria politics on this blog. Let’s quit with using school for feeding kids and get back to using school to educate kids. If you want to feed kids set up a soup kitchen at 6am or 4pm. Use the regular school day and regular school budget to provide the finest math & science education our tax money can buy. Maybe some of these kids will become well enough educated to succeed at good careers. Then they can feed us when we are old and senile.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Betsey: Are you new to TLT? As I say in my tagline, it’s about “kids and food, in school and out,” and because of my own interest and involvement in school food reform on the ground, there’s often a lot of talk about that here. This blog might not be your cup of tea, though I hope you’ll stick around. :-)

    • Liddy says

      Betsey, It is critical to our children’s developing minds that we NEVER lose sight of the fact that food fuels minds. If you bypass the importance of doing/saying whatever you can do to see that healthy foods are offered in the schools then you short change students’ ability to learn. Properly fuel the young minds and then the children will learn what teachers are working diligently to teach!! I coordinate a classroom based nutrition education program that supports core curriculum standards. I see and hear the difference!!

  6. Amy D says

    I am the parent of a child who eats breakfast at home and then goes to school to participate in universal free breakfast. I have heard that I can chose to not let my child participate, but have let this go as an attempt to balance inclusion and exclusion. Because of the items offered at school breakfast, I am not at all comfortable with her eating exclusively at school (served in her classroom at the beginning of the day). I have required that, in the least, she must have fruit at home before eating school breakfast just 30 minutes later. If the quality of the breakfast was good and children were taught and encouraged to eat a nutritious meal, that universal free breakfast would work as an inclusive service. But for now, I am saddened to see kids (mine included) eat their whole wheat pop tart or Trix cereal bar and often skip the fruit.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Amy: I agree – if the food were great, I think parents who have no problem offering breakfast at home might really support the program. But here, too, it’s a lot of pretty processed stuff (though better than before, by far.)

      • RD in Houston says

        In my experience in school food, most districts give certain freedoms to principals to operate on a “campus” level…meaning while the universal breakfast program was mandated in HISD by higher administration, the principals are given options on how they want the breakfast program to operate on their campus. The foodservice department doesnt advertise the “opt out” option because at the end of the day, the decision would come down to the principal of the campus . Check with your principal on your campus first about the “opt out” option……most are willing to accommodate.

        • Bettina Elias Siegel says

          RD: I agree – the principal is the one who is in charge of administering the program and should be approached with concerns. But I do wonder to what degree HISD has made clear that there’s an opt-out, given principals guidance on how to implement it, etc. And in Dr. Grier’s early communications about the program, meant to assuage parents’ concerns during its roll-out, I didn’t see (though maybe I missed it?) any mention of the ability to opt out. That would certainly have been an appropriate place to mention it, no?

  7. stef says

    This isn’t offered in my area and I was wondering how the allergic kids are kept safe. Kinders and first graders aren’t developmentally able to refuse foods that are not safe for them….especially if everyone around them is eating them. They can’t be relied upon. What too about being surrounded by allergens right after everyone has eaten at their desk?

    I have mixed feelings about this and just wonder how the allergic kids are really accommodated. 1 in 13 kids has allergies.

    Does anyone know? I’m curious.

    I would not trust school to feed my child. Mistakes have happened…with my child.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Stef: I know at lunch, children with allergies can arrange for special foods to accommodate their needs. I confess I don’t know if the same thing is done at breakfast but I assume it is. I’ll ask my district.

      • Coolernearlake says

        The same USDA regulations that cover allergies at lunch apply to breakfast programs as well. If a child has a life threatening allergy, then this is considered a disability and the school has to provide accommodation. If a child has an intolerance, then schools are encouraged to provide an alternative, but it is not required. In any case, the parent needs to make sure that the proper forms are on file with the school–and these need to be signed by their medical provider. The medical provider would need to specify if an alternative is OK–could a child have lactose free milk, can they tolerate small amounts of egg (in baked goods) or are these things entirely off limits. No school wants a child to have an allergic reaction, at lunch OR breakfast!

        BTW, districts may also make religious accommodations for students.

        • Hmm says

          In Houston there are no accommodation made for religious purposes however if a child has a note from the doctor the nurse will turn that over to the nutritionist to be analyze. The ladies in the kitchen do a great job but if it was life threatening then that is a decision a parent would have make

      • Alicia says

        It’s not just a matter of whether appropriate allergen-free foods are offered. As a parent with a severely allergic child, having the food in the classroom is the issue I would be greatly concerned about. In the lunchroom, tables are wiped down regularly, and kids don’t have other things to get their hands on. They even have peanut-free tables and such. In the classroom, there is a much greater chance of kids moving around and spreading those allergens around. I would hate to think what could happen with a teacher out of the room for just a minute. Are desks wiped down after breakfast? My son is very cautious in the lunchroom, but I’d like to think the classroom is safe. Peanut allergies are usually the most difficult, though every child is different with reactions. For my son with a dairy allergy, if a child with cheese, milk, butter on their hands touches his desk, he can later get hives, feel a tickle in this throat, need to take Benedryl, and then need a 2 hr. Benadryl nap . He probably won’t die from such a thing, but it’s not exactly what you want on any given day. Just hope there were no important tests going on. Reactions can change, and for some it can be worse. Food is best eaten in the lunchroom.

        I realize kids with allergies are a small percentage, and I hate to be one of “those parents”, but we are talking about a serious medical condition, as well as increased anxiety that is brought on allergic kids. They should get to feel that their classroom is a safe place.

        To me, it is also a statement about the importance of a clearly defined time and place to eat. Pediatricians and parenting experts always say to teach kids to eat meals at the table, turn off the electronics and enjoy the mealtime as a family. To be encouraging everyone to be eating in the classroom takes away from that. If a few people need breakfast, then they should eat in the cafeteria with others who are eating.

  8. says

    It’s a hot topic here in Chicago as well. My daughter’s school has free school breakfast in the classroom each morning. I understand it’s intent, but I’m not sure if this is the right way to go about it. At first, my daughter thought it was the coolest thing in the world and wanted school breakfast every morning. We allowed her to try it (knowing that it wouldn’t live up to the hype and the interest would pass). Then she decided that she didn’t really like everything so she would eat breakfast at home AND get school breakfast (unbeknownst to us) so she was covered if she didn’t actually like the school offering. She was eating two breakfasts some mornings!! And the second one was generally not a very healthy option (her favorite was waffles and syrup which her teacher loathed having in her classroom). My daughter has a sensitivity to milk… not an allergy but more of a lactose intolerance thing. She doesn’t realize the full impact of it on her health, so was drinking a carton of milk every morning with school breakfast because it was the only beverage offered! I’ve since had a talk with her! She’s doing good now with not taking a breakfast in the mornings (there is no breakfast card or anything to regulate things… you have to pass through the breakfast line in order to go to your classroom and take either a “hot” or “cold” bag)… or at least that’s what she’s told us. I’m going to have to trust her on it though.

  9. says

    “In an age when childhood obesity is a real concern, giving kids two breakfasts a day is obviously problematic…”

    Let’s be honest: kids aren’t getting obese because they are eating too much breakfast. Unless, of course, those “breakfasts” consist mainly of Pop Tarts, chocolate milk, and Cinnebons.


  10. says

    This is a an ongoing challenge. Many school districts employ a program called Provision 2 or Universal Feeding where students don’t need ID cards to take a meal. There just needs to be either a headcount (as in Provision 2) or a check off list of names. When it’s in the classroom we already get a lot of push back from teachers that it’s more work for them. If we were to require them to be “food police” and be responsible for who gets a meal and who doesn’t it potentially would bring even more back lash.


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