Full Bellies, Hungrier Minds: School Breakfast Innovations In North Carolina


Tristan Chavez remembers going to first period hungry. Chavez is a nationally ranked soccer player who practiced first thing in the morning before heading to class — too late for before-school breakfast.

He works hard on the soccer field, and he also works hard in the classroom as he maintains a track to become the first person in his family to go to college. But the hunger made paying attention difficult. Who can think about symbolism on an empty stomach?

Last year, to his great relief, he started getting breakfast in class, during first period.

“At my school, students know that teachers care about us,” Chavez said. “Not just about the learning, but about all that we are and all that we can be.”

The Department of Public Instruction is partnering with organizations like No Kid Hungry, a national program launched by the nonprofit Share Our Strength, to develop and offer innovative school breakfast programs designed to help students like Chavez. And there are a lot of students like Chavez.

According to data compiled by No Kid Hungry, there is a significant breakfast gap in North Carolina. The breakfast gap is the difference between the number of students who eat free or reduced-price lunch and the number of students who eat school breakfast.

In North Carolina, of those who receive free or reduced-price lunch, only 58% are eating school breakfast. Additionally, only 42% of students who are eligible for free or reduced-price breakfast are eating breakfast.

These numbers offer insight into a specific group of students who may be hungry but aren’t getting fed. The state wants to take advantage of federal funding that is available to feed these students in recognition of the impact proper nutrition can have on a child’s ability to learn.

“School can be a place where they can get the good start to the day and be ready to learn,” said Julie Pittman, the 2018 Western Region Teacher of the Year who taught Chavez’s first-period class last year. “It eliminates the barrier for all kids, and it doesn’t necessarily have to do with whether you can afford to feed your kid.”

Students are hungry in the mornings for several reasons. Some can’t get a proper breakfast at home. More than one in five students in North Carolina struggle with hunger, as compared to one in seven nationally. According to the USDA, North Carolina is one of 12 states where food insecurity is above the national average.

But many students, whether they play a sport and have morning practice or because they’re just not hungry before they leave the home, sit down in class and hear the first bell two or more hours after they’ve had a proper meal.

“What about the kid who has to catch the bus at 5:45 in the morning?” Pittman asked. “They may have had breakfast at 5:30, but by the time they’ve gotten to school and had their first class, their lunch may not be until 11, and they may need another meal.”

The reason why they don’t get that at school has little to do with availability. Nearly every school in North Carolina participates in a school breakfast program, but traditionally this looks like a cafeteria-style breakfast offering before the school day begins.

If students don’t get to school in time to get through the breakfast line, sit down, and eat without being late to class, they’ll skip breakfast.

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