Studies show that students benefit from regularly eating breakfast—their behavior, academic performance, and mental health improve. That’s why many schools offer free breakfast, with funding through programs from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and in accordance with state and federal laws. But fitting breakfast into a busy schedule early in the morning is difficult for a lot of kids. At Grand County High School, the bus drops students off at 7:30 a.m., and classes begin at 7:45. That doesn’t allow much time to take advantage of the breakfast offered in the cafeteria each morning—it also doesn’t allow for many students’ preferred meal schedule.
“We’ve found that a lot of students just aren’t hungry at 7:30 in the morning,” said Alysha Packard, Nutrition Director for the Grand County School District. Since the beginning of February, the high school is now offering an alternative breakfast model, with shelf-stable items like fruits, granola and breakfast bars available on a cart for students all day.
“Most students come around 9:30 or 10 o’clock,” Packard said. Teachers have discretion on if and when they allow students to eat in the classroom, but Packard said most teachers have been flexible.
“We intentionally chose items that are low-mess and will cause the least distraction,” she said.
GCHS student Alysha Bertoch occasionally grabs a granola bar from the cart during one of her concurrent enrollment college courses. The class is held in the technology building of the high school, but because it’s offered by Utah State University, its schedule doesn’t always mesh with the high school’s: for Bertoch, the class overlaps with her lunch break. She said her teachers don’t mind if she has a quick, non-messy snack during class.
“It’s a really good way to get kids to eat,” Bertoch said, “because for people like me, who are very busy, it’s very hard to find the time to eat.” In addition to a full academic schedule with challenging classes, Bertoch participates in a variety of extra-curricular activities including band and drama club, and she also holds a job outside of school.
The grab-and-go breakfast initiative is in compliance with Utah House Bill 222, passed in 2020, which requires schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program to also participate in the School Breakfast Program. It also requires an alternative breakfast program, called Start Smart, that allows students to eat breakfast after classes have started. The program is open to all GCHS students through the end of this school year, as is free lunch, thanks to USDA waivers provided because of the pandemic. Next school year, there may be more family income-based qualifications attached to the program, as for traditional breakfast and lunch in pre-pandemic years. Around 40% of Grand County High School students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, according to publicschoolreview.com and high-schools.com. Packard encourages all families to fill out applications for the free and reduced lunch program because data collected from those applications can qualify the school to receive more money for education, technology and extra-curricular activities, as well as meals.
The high school still offers the traditional cafeteria breakfast with a rotating menu of things like breakfast sandwiches and burritos, pancakes, muffins and yogurt—a greater variety than the grab-and-go cart, which only carries shelf-stable items. Packard said that the school has been heavily promoting breakfast. They surveyed high school and middle school students this winter on their breakfast habits and preferences, and got about 200 responses. Teachers have been encouraging their classes to eat breakfast. Those efforts are paying off. Since the alternative program launched, Packard said, more students are taking advantage of the grab-and-go items than are attending the cafeteria breakfast—but participation in the cafeteria breakfast has also gone up.
“Students who eat breakfast at school have higher test scores, fewer disruptions for behavior, better attendance and fewer tardies,” Packard said, adding, “There’s new research that shows there are mental health benefits to eating breakfast in school.”
A study published in 2020 on the National Institute of Health’s PubMed Central, an online archive of medical and science journal literature, found that skipping breakfast was associated with 10 out of 15 health risk behaviors, nine of nine poor mental health indicators and poor academic performance.
Packard said the program will eventually also be implemented at the middle and elementary schools, possibly starting with a pilot program at Margaret L. Hopkin Middle School in the spring.