Lots of kids start the school day hungry. Here’s how Wichita is trying to help

On a typical school day in Kansas, only about half the students who qualify for a free breakfast actually eat one.

A recent report by Kansas Appleseed, an anti-poverty nonprofit group, outlined the problem — which can lead to diminished learning, attendance and behavior — and urged school districts to do whatever they can provide morning meals to more students.

In Wichita, the state’s largest district, officials say they have launched several initiatives aimed at doing just that.

And so far they’re working.

“Our ultimate goal is to feed kids in our community,” said Fabian Armendariz, director of operations for the Wichita district. “So we continue to look for opportunities.”

The programs, available at 10 Wichita middle and high schools so far, include extended serving times in cafeterias, grab-and-go breakfasts from carts or kiosks, and “second-chance breakfast,” in which students are offered breakfast after homeroom or first period.

David Paul, director of nutrition services for the district, said the district is serving about 1,100 more breakfasts a day — a 45 percent increase — at schools with the new programs.

“More kids are eating,” Paul said.

That’s thanks in part to additional state funding and a $5,000 grant from No Kid Hungry, Paul said, which allowed the Wichita district to buy point-of-purchase computer stations to serve grab-and-go breakfasts at more schools.

Wichita serves breakfast through the federally funded school lunch program, and until recently, only in cafeterias and before the morning bell. About three-fourths of Wichita’s nearly 51,000 students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

In past years, Wichita opted out of Breakfast in the Classroom and other alternative breakfast initiatives, in part because of financial concerns. They also worried about the logistics of breakfast — how to run hundreds more students from buses, through cafeteria lines and back to classrooms.

Officials began experimenting in 2016 with alternative breakfast options at Brooks Magnet Middle School, which starts its day at 7 a.m. Because some teens struggle to get to school on time — and many aren’t hungry first thing in the morning — Brooks began offering students the option of grabbing breakfast after first period from carts stationed around the school.

The school went from serving about 100 breakfasts a day to serving more than 300.

Last semester at Coleman Middle School in northeast Wichita, one teacher experimented with breakfast in the classroom, allowing students to eat at the start of the school day. This month, that program was expanded to include all sixth-graders, Paul said.

“We’re going to see how it goes from there,” he said.

Such “breakfast after the bell” options, which move breakfast out of the cafeteria and make it part of the regular school day, have proven to be the most successful strategies to increasing breakfast participation, said Kansas Appleseed in its May 2018 report.

“These alternative service models overcome timing, convenience, and stigma barriers that get in the way” and prevent children from eating breakfast at school, the report said.

In Wichita, grab-and-go breakfasts usually are cold packaged foods such as cereals, fruit, breakfast wraps or toaster pastries, along with milk and juice. Cafeterias are able to serve hot items such as sausage or chicken biscuits, breakfast burritos, french toast sticks and breakfast pizza.

Wichita schools experimenting with alternative breakfast initiatives include: Cloud Elementary; Brooks, Coleman, Curtis and Mayberry middle schools; and East, North, South, Southeast and West high schools.

On Monday, Wichita school board members will hear a report on the new breakfast initiatives. Paul, the nutrition director, said he plans to expand the programs as much as possible. Each school presents different challenges based on the building layout, schedules and other factors, he said.

Meanwhile, the district plans to collect data from participating schools to measure whether more breakfasts are translating to better test scores, fewer absences and tardies, fewer visits to the school nurse and better behavior.

“All those things we are trying to improve upon,” Paul said.