School breakfast push succeeding in S.C.

COLUMBIA -- Two elementary-age children work their way down the hallway at Doby's Mill Elementary School in Elgin, breakfast bucket in tow.

The smell of sausage biscuits follows the little delivery people.

Inside the classroom, young students perk up at the sight of their breakfast delivery, eager to eat a sausage biscuit while finishing up early morning class work.

A few miles away at Leslie M. Stover Middle School, students fill the hall during a morning break, filing past two food stations that offer a midmorning breakfast of low-fat sausage pupdogs, a whole-grain favorite in the school's breakfast program.

"They love to go to breakfast. They're always asking, 'Is it 9:10 yet?'" sixth-grade math teacher Kiersten Ross said. "They think better with a full belly."

That's a fact that South Carolina educators and dietitians have latched onto in recent years.

Although state law has mandated that breakfast be available to all S.C. public school children since 1993, a real push has been made in the past five years to increase children's access to the morning meal.

As a result, in 2006, the state led the nation in the percentage of schools that serve breakfast to public school students, according to an annual scorecard kept by the Food Research and Action Center. The center assesses child nutrition issues.

Also, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the school breakfast program, South Carolina has increased the number of breakfasts it serves from 29 million in 2002 to 37 million in 2006.

Educators say those numbers have grown largely due to innovative ways of offering breakfast, such as those in place at Doby's Mill and Leslie M. Stover.

Fuel for the mind

Educators are quick to point out breakfast's benefits.

"You can tell the days when they don't eat," said Emily McRedmond, a third-grade teacher at Doby's Mill Elementary. "They say, 'My head hurts,' or they're sleepy."

Children don't recognize these symptoms as signs of hunger, but school nurses have a term for it: "transient hunger."

Schools that serve breakfast in the classroom report fewer visits to the nurse for early-morning headaches and stomach pains. They also report fewer discipline problems and better performance on class work and tests.

According to the Food Research and Action Center, research indicates "children who skip breakfast are less able to master the tasks necessary to do well in school -- they have more difficulty distinguishing among similar images, show increased errors and have slower memory recall."

So, to feed a child in the morning is to fuel learning, explained Vivian Pilant, director of the state office of School Food Services and Nutrition.

"If you really want to have a child who's ready to learn, you've got to have fuel. Your brain works on glucose, not starvation," she said.

At the middle school level, kids like the idea of taking a morning break for the breakfast they didn't feel like eating when they first woke up.

"It's better to eat it later," said 11-year-old Mikala York.

Friend Rachel Droze, also 11, added: "And it's good food."

Area high schools are tapped in, too, Wilson said, with some setting up kiosks in front of the school where students can grab a bite to eat while heading into class.

Other benefits

Ginger Catoe, interim principal at Doby's Mill Elementary, is a true believer. She finds that eating breakfast in the classroom has multiple benefits, including building camaraderie among students.

Eating a meal together while completing a lesson is "a big classroom community builder," Catoe said.

It also draws the cafeteria staff into the school's overall mission.

"The cafeteria staff sees that what they do is directly linked to instructional improvement," Catoe said.

Another benefit is that the stigma once attached to eating breakfast at school is removed. Every child can take part, and because students use a code to pay for their meal, no one knows who is receiving the meal free or at a reduced price.

The program also addresses another issue the hectic pace of modern life.

Sally Gardner, who coordinates nutrition and food service for the Kershaw County School District, expected complaints from parents typically able to feed their children breakfast.

The reaction was the opposite.

She found parents are happy to spend a dollar for a second breakfast at school.

And for school bus riders, who might have been up since 5:30, school breakfast provides a welcome morning snack. By the time 9 a.m. rolls around, they're starving.

"We provide the appropriate calories to hold them over," Gardner said."