School Beat: Mythbusters

by Dana Woldow on October 13, 2005

There is plenty of conventional wisdom about kids and food. “You can lead kids to water but you can’t make them drink it.” “Kids don’t want to eat healthy food; they only like junk food.” “High school kids won’t eat breakfast.”

One by one, the San Francisco Unified School District is proving that these “truths” are just myths. In 2002, Aptos Middle School replaced the soda in their vending machines with water, and sales skyrocketed. When the district removed junk food from school cafeterias in 2003, revenues increased.

Now Balboa High School has started a pilot Grab n Go breakfast program, believed to be the first of its kind in the Bay Area. Designed to encourage more students to start the day with a nutritious meal, kids can arrive as late as five minutes before the 8:20 start time, 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.

The Grab n Go breakfast includes a variety of items, such as cold cereal, bagel and cream cheese, fresh fruit, orange juice, fruit muffin, string cheese, yogurt, and milk. In colder weather, hot items such as a breakfast burrito, pancakes, and waffles will be added to the menu.

After two weeks, about twice as many students are eating the Grab n Go breakfast, compared with sit-down breakfast participation last school year. Between 150-160 Grab n Go breakfasts were served daily during the pilot’s second week, nearly all to low-income students who qualify for free meals. The goal is to increase participation at the 1000-student school to 200 students per day. During the 2004-05 school year, an average of only 80 students per day ate breakfast in the cafeteria.

The Excelsior District school is a study in contrasts. Long plagued by an unsavory reputation dating to the early nineties, Balboa was once considered unacceptable by many families who feared drugs or violence on the campus. A new Principal took over near the end of the decade and has turned the school completely around. The campus is calm, orderly and free of problems with weapons or drugs. Parents whose children enrolled in the honors program, now in its third year, were happily surprised when Balboa’s honors students outscored their peers at Lincoln and Washington on spring 2005 California State Standards tests. The school’s API score (which reflects academic progress made by students) has soared almost 200 points in just 4 years.

Balboa continues to serve a diverse student body, with Latino, Chinese, African American and Filipino students accounting for 90% of the population. In 2004-05, 47.4% of students officially qualified for free or reduced price meals, but the actual number of students who would qualify is likely higher. The perceived stigma associated with receiving free meals, as well as unfounded fears surrounding immigration status, make some families reluctant to fill out the application form required for qualification.

In response, the school district is now asking every family to fill out a meal form, regardless of whether they believe their student will qualify for free meals. Treating the meal application like the emergency card, which every student must complete, should reduce the stigma. Information accompanying the form explains that immigration status will not be affected, and details how schools benefit from a high rate of meal application returns.

In a survey of 250 “Bal” students conducted last spring, 25% reported that they “never” eat breakfast, while another 50% eat breakfast “sometimes.” Some indicated that their breakfast consisted of soda, potato chips, or other junk food. About 80% of those surveyed said that they would like to eat breakfast during the start of first period, and another 15% said they might be willing to do so.

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.

For the predominantly low-income students of Balboa High School, starting the day with a nutritious breakfast is not only helping them avoid obesity, stay alert and focused in school, and maintain better health, it is also helping to bust another myth about kids and food. Even better, it lets them participate in the latest trendy activity at their school.
These low income kids are often at the fringes of high school life. The “cool” aspects of high school – going to the prom, getting everyone to sign your yearbook, even just showing off the new outfit you got at the mall – are often financially out of reach for them. The novelty of the Grab n Go breakfast has made it “cool” – and for once, it is actually easier for low income kids to participate than anyone else.

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.

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