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Championing breakfast in schools

The goal is to boost daily participation to 70 percent of students in attendance.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

When Zaire Green, 8, has breakfast at home, his favorite, he says, is “eggs and bacon.”

At his school, Prince Hall Elementary in the West Oak Lane section, he favors cereal but was happily munching apple slices and biting into a wholesome, tasty muffin on a recent morning.

Breakfast is a big deal at Prince Hall, with an enrollment of 540 in pre-K through 5th grade. Principal Donna Ragsdale says her message to students is “a healthy breakfast, a healthy life.”

“With a lot of our children, we don’t know what they might have had the night before. Our goal is to make sure they have a healthy breakfast — a fresh start in the morning,” Ragsdale said. “Also, we’re trying to eliminate those bags of snacks coming in from the corner stores.”

Breakfast and lunch are free to all students in District schools, but getting students to partake, especially of breakfast, has proved a challenge. Many students arrive just before the bell; others are preoccupied.

So what to do? The answer across the District seems to be: Think outside the cafeteria box, and deliver food to students where you find them.

Taking it to the kids

At high schools, where students tend to arrive at the last minute, or late, “grab and go” carts have been set up near entrances. At elementary schools, serving breakfast in classrooms, at least in some grades, is improving participation.

It’s a trend supported by advocacy groups — including the Food Research and Action Center in Washington and the Coalition Against Hunger in Philadelphia — and Gov. Wolf’s administration, which this spring offered mini-grants to schools across the state to expand alternative breakfast programs and boost student participation.


In Philadelphia, the District’s food services division is running promotions and encouraging principals to use multiple methods to deliver breakfast to more students.

The goal, said Wayne Grasela, senior vice president for food services, is to boost daily participation to 70 percent of students in attendance. Last year, only 41 percent of students ate the morning selections. (See all schools’ breakfast participation data as of March 2018.)

“We have the latitude to order and deliver different menu items depending on the school,” Grasela said. “If a principal doesn’t want pancakes or French toast and syrup [because of drips], we can do something else. … Whatever the principal wants to see happen, we can make it happen.”

The District offers whole-grain food products, without white flour, as well as milk, fresh fruit, a dairy product such as yogurt or string cheese, and juice, depending on the day.

Student-made muffins

The prepackaged muffins served at Prince Hall on a recent morning were the Rebel Crumbles brand first created by Philadelphia high school students a couple of years ago. (Another recent change: no more polystyrene; trays and plates are compostable.)

Prince Hall is among 30 District schools taking pains to boost breakfast in an initiative that is likely to be expanded next year. There was the Mad for Breakfast Challenge during March, for instance.

Prince Hall students were thrilled when Swoop, the Philadelphia Eagles mascot, visited the school to kick off National School Breakfast Week.

Principal Ragsdale has been running incentives in recent months to boost both attendance and breakfast. Last year, less than half the students in attendance (46 percent) took advantage of breakfast. (Prince Hall and all other District schools, as well as charter schools, track breakfast and lunch participation using student IDs, a requirement for federal reimbursement.)

Since breakfasts arrived in classrooms in November, participation has reached 80 to 90 percent, and the increased attention to breakfast has proved a boon to overall attendance. Some Prince Hall classrooms have boasted 100 percent attendance on some days.

Since breakfasts arrived in Prince Hall classrooms in November, participation has reached 80 to 90 percent. The increased attention to breakfast has proved a boon to overall attendance. (Photo by Greg Windle)

“I was reluctant at first,” Ragsdale admitted. “We think of the little things — the spills, the cleanup — but then we noticed that wasn’t a major issue and we were having increased good behavior. Students were actually OK during the day because — guess what? — their stomachs were full, so then they could concentrate. I was, like, wow — and so were my teachers.”

It turns out, getting the principal to sign on is key to improving breakfast delivery, said Jarred Lee, a food services field supervisor.

“Some principals aren’t as breakfast-friendly, as food-friendly,” Lee said. “Mrs. Ragsdale is definitely one of my champions.”

Not much is tossed

Zaire’s teacher, Christine Edelman, said her 3rd graders eat most everything offered.

“Most everybody will eat some of their breakfast,” Edelman said. “If they don’t eat it, they’ll put it back in the crate, or they’ll save it to eat as a snack on the way home. We don’t usually throw food away because there’s nothing to throw away.”

The children put all waste in one bag, which is left outside the classroom door for custodial staff to dispose of.

Tommy Peek, a volunteer who has two grandsons at the school, said she’s noticed far more students eating breakfast now that it’s served in classrooms. There are fewer distractions and less food waste, she observed. Trash bags get filled with wrappers, and not much food gets tossed.

“That’s the main thing — get them some breakfast so they’re not hungry and they can sit still and comprehend and do their work,” Peek said.

Hasana Johnson, 9, is in 3rd grade, like the other students interviewed, and the school’s student body president. She said she would prefer having breakfast in the all-purpose room, rather than her classroom, so she can network.

“I kinda like it better down there. I like my classmates, but I have people [there] to talk to,” Hasana said.

Prince Hall students also get lessons on nutrition. One of Peek’s grandsons, Bai’Ruce Morris Jr., 9, had a quick answer when asked what he’s learned about nutrition. “The No. 1 thing everybody should know is there are five main food groups,” Bai’Ruce said. “Proteins, grains, veggies, fruits and, oh yeah, dairy.”

His favorite breakfast foods at school? He had a long list, including cereal, apple slices, juice, and fruit cups.

Zakiyah Hunter, 9, was succinct. “Nutrition is good for you,” he said. “It gets you stronger.”


The Notebook is one of 19 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Read more at https://brokeinphilly.org and follow us on twitter @BrokeInPhilly

This article is part of a special online section of the Notebook that takes a look at school meals and the important role they play in providing nutrition to children in Philadelphia, the poorest among the 10 most populous U.S. cities. In Philadelphia, 26 percent of the population, and 37 percent of children – that’s 126,000 children – live under the federal poverty line, according to Shared Prosperity Philadelphia.

Read more here.

The edition is made possible by the generous support of the Leo & Peggy Pierce Family Foundation.