Report: N.H. Struggles To Get Poor Students To Eat Breakfast At School

May 19, 2015

It makes sense that students who eat a healthy breakfast are more likely to perform well at school.

And while data shows that across the country, more students than ever are benefiting from school breakfast programs, the Granite State continues to lag in that area.

A report earlier this year found New Hampshire ranks second to last in participation in the national school breakfast program among low-income students.

Tom Tanner is director of dining services for the Rochester School District. He joins us to talk about the issue of school breakfast.

The data shows there’s clearly a statewide struggle to get students to take part in the school breakfast program. What are some challenges for schools in getting students to participate?

Some of the challenges are that kids are getting to school in the morning and there’s a short amount of time. The buses start coming in at 8 o’clock and they have to be in the classroom by 8:25, so it’s a limited time.

In Rochester, you’re able to offer free breakfast at all eight elementary schools to all students, regardless of income. How does the program work?

Tom Tanner is director of food services for the Rochester School District.
Credit NHPR / Michael Brindley

The superintendent felt we had a great need here in Rochester for that program. The data shows that kids that participate in breakfast do better in school, better attendance, less disciplinary issues. It’s reimbursed through the federal program, the USDA. We have to meet requirements in terms of what we’re serving. We get audited every three years to make sure we’re meeting those requirements.

Does the fact that it’s offered to all students remove some of the stigma associated with receiving free meals at school?

Yes, I think it does. Everyone’s on a level playing field.

Are you able to track participation in the school breakfast program among your low-income students?

We started an in-the-class breakfast program at East Rochester Elementary School because of construction going on there. That has increased the participation, even for free and reduced lunch students, by 20 percent. And overall, it’s 30 percent higher than the other elementary schools in the district.  Breakfast in the classroom is a big help. It takes away that time constraint. It’s something we’re looking to move forward with.

Of course, it’s important these breakfasts are healthy, as well. What does a typical school breakfast look like for these students?

Typically, we have pancakes. Fruit, milk, or juice every morning. We also offer cereal with a cheese stick. Everything includes fruit and milk. There’s a wide variety. We have a four-week cycle that students seem to like. They have a lot of choices.

The top ten and bottom ten performing states, in terms of low-income student participation in the national school breakfast program.
Credit Food Research and Action Center

Summer is fast approaching. When school is out, are there programs in the district or the Rochester community to ensure low-income students are still able to get assistance?

Yes, we are fortunate to have the Strafford County Community Action Partners offer free breakfast and lunch to all students up to the age of 18 during the summer months. That’s offered here at Spaulding High School and other locations throughout the city. They’ve stepped up and helped us out with that.