School Beat: Got Breakfast? Grab n Go Triples Participation at Balboa High School

by Dana Woldow on February 8, 2007

San Francisco’s Balboa High School is in the second year of a pilot Grab n Go breakfast program which has succeeded in increasing participation in school breakfast among a population which is notoriously averse to starting the day with a healthy meal – teenagers. The convenience of Grab n Go makes it a winner with kids.

As originally implemented, students could arrive in the cafeteria as late as five minutes before the 8:20 start time for school, grab the pre-bagged breakfast, and head off to class. Breakfast can be eaten during the first ten minutes of class time. The traditional sit-down breakfast program requires students to arrive 20-30 minutes early.

But now students don’t even need to swing by the cafeteria to pick up their meal. A second serving point has been set up in the school lobby, so that students can grab their breakfast as they come in the front door and go right to class. Students use their student ID as a “swipe card” (much like an ATM card) to denote their eligibility for free or reduced price meals; those who do not qualify for reimbursable meals can pay cash or, when fully operational, the point of sale (POS) swipe card system will automatically deduct the money from an online account. For now, the breakfast is being offered free to all students.

Studies link eating breakfast with improved concentration in school children, and with helping people maintain a healthy weight. Increased school breakfast participation correlates with less tardiness and absence, higher math grades, and reductions in problems like depression, anxiety and hyperactivity.

Skipping breakfast has a negative impact on cognitive functioning, dental health, cholesterol levels and insulin resistance. Missing breakfast increases the risk of heart disease and can cause irritability and lethargy. Children who skip breakfast are twice as likely to be overweight.

In the last year of regular sit down cafeteria breakfast, an average of about 80 students ate the school meal each day. Grab n Go service in the cafeteria doubled that, to about 165 students, and by the fourth day of Grab n Go availability in the lobby, 256 students ate a school breakfast, more than triple the number who ate the regular breakfast just 2 years ago.

Grab n Go has been so successful at Balboa that other schools have been getting in line to start the program too. Bessie Carmichael Elementary, a school serving Kindergarten through 8th grade in the South of Market neighborhood, has started a modified Grab n Go (kids eat in the caf rather than the classroom, but use the POS system) and 11 other elementary schools are piloting a new breakfast packaged for a Grab n Go format. For many years, the SFUSD has served cold cereal day after day for elementary breakfast; the new breakfast at these pilot schools features more variety, including yogurt, muffins, and cheese sticks. More students are already eating this new breakfast at most of the pilot sites.

However, before Grab n Go can expand district wide, money must be made available to pay for the POS system in every school, and to fund a technology specialist position within the Student Nutrition Services (SNS) department. SNS has applied for grant money to fund both, and if successful, installation of a POS in every school could begin by next school year. However, if grant money does not come through, it could be a long wait. The cost of the POS system is about $1 million, money which the cash-strapped district does not have readily available, even though the system would likely pay for itself in savings within just a couple of years.

Meanwhile, what can schools do if they want to have a Grab n Go program? Be sure the whole school community understands what Grab n Go is and how it works. There is a PowerPoint slideshow available at which gives a good overview of the program. It is essential to get buy-in from all stakeholders at the school – parents, students, teachers, principal, even the janitors, who will be responsible for making sure trash from breakfast is removed promptly from classrooms. Teachers need to be willing to allow students to eat at their desks at the start of the school day. Parents need to be onboard, so that they will encourage their kids to participate. Once everyone agrees that a Grab n Go is a good fit for the community, the school Principal should contact Student Nutrition Services to get onto the waiting list for Grab n Go. Schools on the list will likely get priority for getting their POS system installed once funding does become available.

To learn more about school food in the SFUSD, please visit

Dana Woldow is co-chair of the SFUSD Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee, and the parent of two current SFUSD students and one SFUSD graduate. She can be reached at

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