Eating in class used to be taboo, but at some Memphis elementary and middle schools, the practice is actually encouraged. At least, that's the case at breakfast time.
In March, 20 schools in the Memphis City Schools (MCS) system began offering students a choice of hot or cold breakfast items during roll call, thanks to a grant offered by the national group Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom.
All MCS schools serve breakfast, but most offer the option before the school day begins. MCS dietician Kim Stewart said moving breakfast into the classroom in a select number of city schools has greatly increased the number of students opting to eat their first meal of the day at school.
"Some children get to school too late to eat breakfast at school when it isn't offered during class," Stewart said. "Plus, when the weather is pretty, a lot of children would rather stay outside and play rather than coming in before class to eat breakfast."
MCS was one of five school districts in the country selected for the Breakfast in the Classroom grant, which is funded by the Walmart Foundation. Other school districts selected were in Dallas, Little Rock, Prince George's County in Maryland, and Orange County in Florida.
"They chose school districts that did have a breakfast program but didn't normally have children coming to eat breakfast," Stewart said. "They wanted to see if we would come up with a method to increase breakfast participation, which would maybe help students behave better and focus better."
Before the program began at 20 schools, Stewart said around 4,600 students were consuming breakfast at those schools. After they began serving breakfast in class, that number jumped to more than 9,000 students.
The initial grant paid for MCS to start breakfast service in select schools, but Stewart said they'll be expanding into other schools in the fall. Schools that do not serve breakfast in class serve the meal before class begins.
"Right now, we're allowing principals to sign up," Stewart said. "We've even had a couple of parents call and ask if their school can be signed up."
Grant money was used to pay for carts to transport food from class to class, as well as insulated bags for hot and cold food and extra staff to run the program. Each morning, food is delivered by cart before the teacher takes roll. Kids have a choice of a hot item, like a sausage and whole grain biscuit, or a cold item, such as yogurt and granola.
"The teachers check roll while the children are eating, and then they explain their morning board work," Stewart said. "The teachers are saying the students are more focused, and more children are getting there on time so they can eat breakfast."
All students are offered the breakfast option regardless of income. But Memphis was selected for this program, in part, because 85 percent of the enrolled students are eligible for a free or reduced lunch, according to Danny Seymour, dean of education for the School Nutrition Association.
"It's important that we get kids in there for nutritional, quality meals," Seymour said. "We've found that students [who eat breakfast] are much more attentive and take less trips to the nurse's office in the morning with headaches or stomache aches ... it also gets them calmed down and ready to start the day."