Spelling Bees & Breakfast: Sodexo Aids Learning

Before the algebra equations and history quizzes begin, students who attend several Atlanta Public Schools (APS) start their day of learning with a nutritious meal that might include low-fat milk and fruit, as well as items such as chicken biscuits, waffles, scrambled eggs or oatmeal.

Thanks to an in-class-breakfast program successfully introduced last March by Sodexo Jackmont at Atlanta’s Slater elementary, the initiative has expanded to five elementary, two middle and two high schools, serving more than 5,000 students. Since introducing in-class breakfast, “we’ve had more than a 200 percent increase in participation,” says APS’s Director of Nutrition Administration Dr. Marilyn Hughes.

Although all students in this district are eligible for the federally reimbursed universal free school breakfast, regardless of income, most weren’t participating. The reasons: They had to arrive a half hour early and eat their meals separately in the cafeteria.

But when Sodexo implemented breakfast in class, in which meal carts are rolled into the rooms or food is distributed at stands in school hallways, participation increased significantly, explains Sodexo‘s APS District Manager Hossein Akhtarkhavari

, who is responsible for serving about 48,000 students daily. “Many of our students come from homes that live at or below poverty level, and having a good, healthy breakfast increases their performance,” he says.

As public schools struggle to achieve equal educational opportunities and close the achievement gap, the in-class-breakfast program appears to be helping. In Atlanta, administrators report reduced absenteeism and tardiness and fewer discipline problems.

The in-class-breakfast program also removes the stigma associated with federally funded meals. “Children might be coming to school without eating breakfast and still not be participating in the school breakfast program for a variety of reasons, including a perceived stigma associating school breakfast participation with poverty,” writes the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in its study “Evaluation of the School Breakfast Program Pilot Project.”

What do parents think? “Many of our parents have e-mailed or told me that they really like the concept,” says Hughes.

Whether it’s the stigma, a tight family budget or time constraints, “too many children are heading off to school without eating breakfast,” says Sodexo’s National Director of Wellness for the Educational Market Roxanne Moore. “And missing breakfast is putting children’s health and academic performance at risk.”

Connecting With Communities

In 2008, 49.1 million people lived in food-insecure households, defined as homes that were at times uncertain of having or were unable to acquire enough food to meet the needs of family members, reports the USDA. This includes 16.7 million children, many of which live in Black, Latino or single-parent households.

“Children in food-insecure households have higher risks of health and development problems than children in otherwise similar food-secure households,” writes the USDA in “Food Insecurity in Households with Children.”

Introducing innovative ways to close this gap within the communities where it does business is key at Sodexo, No. 6 on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity® list. “Universally, across Sodexo, we have folks … working with all of our schools out there one-on-one trying to help them find ways to get breakfast to students,” says Moore.

Sodexo collaborates with more than 470 districts and has been managing nutrition programs in schools since 1986. Akhtarkhavari, for instance, works with administrators to teach school children about the importance of healthy eating, either by showing short movies while they eat breakfast or distributing fun nutritional facts on food packaging.

“At Sodexo, we reach students beyond just the meal,” he says. “We improve the quality of their lives, their test scores.”

During the past school year, 10.8 million children participated in the school breakfast program nationally, with 81 percent receiving free or reduced-price breakfasts. Sodexo’s goal is to work closely with communities, figure out how the program can reach full potential and improve the nation’s competitive academic performance.

The reason: Sodexo recognizes that these children will someday be the future work force. “It is all about maintaining a competitive advantage,” says President and CEO George Chavel.

Food for Thought

Numerous documented studies have found that eating breakfast increases academic performance because students are more focused and alert and have better memory.

“It comes down to some basic logic: If you’re trying to focus and concentrate and you’ve not eaten your last meal since 8 p.m. last night, you’re essentially asking your body to perform on empty,” says Moore. “Consuming breakfast helps them get at least five key nutritional ingredients that we know kids are not getting enough of.” That’s why each of the breakfast-combination offerings, such as a high-fiber breakfast bar developed by Sodexo, include milk (which provides calcium, magnesium and potassium) and fruit (vitamins A and C).

In-class breakfast also helps students:

  • Maintain a healthy immune system: This is especially important as the flu season approaches. “A child who is eating consistently healthy meals throughout the day is going to have a greater opportunity to fight off illness than a child who is missing meals or … eating calorie-dense foods,” adds Moore.
  • Control weight: Obesity among youth has hit epidemic proportions in the United States and can lead to diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. But research has found that eating breakfast helps children and adults control their weight. According to a National Weight Control Registry study of about 3,000 people who had lost 60 pounds and kept it off for six years, researchers “found that eating breakfast every day was a weight-control strategy for about 78 percent of the participants,” says Moore. So the breakfast program is “an opportunity to create healthy habits for children that will continue with them as they become adults,” she says.
  • Gain more time to learn: In-class breakfast also increases the student/teacher contact time, offering instructors a chance to teach students about nutrition, food etiquette, hygiene, cultural cuisine and more. “This is an opportunity to enhance their preparation for the day,” says Hughes.
  • Eating in the classroom “keeps kids in the educational mode,” adds Akhtarkhavari, so their learning time isn’t interrupted. “One comment made by a principal [was] that he added about 11 days to the school year because the students are actually learning straight when they come to school instead of going to the cafeteria and waiting on line.”
  • Increase peer interaction: Breaking bread with fellow students in the classroom “is just a great way to start the day in a family setting,” says Akhtarkhavari. “When we do food, we touch the students with all their senses.”

How Does Breakfast Boost Academic Performance?

Although it’s too soon to determine how Atlanta Public School children are performing academically since introducing its breakfast program, several studies have found a link between children’s nutrition and improved academic performance. According to a landmark study published in the “Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine” in 1998, students who ate school breakfast “had significantly greater increases in their math grades and significantly greater decreases in the rates of school absence and tardiness than children whose participation remained the same or decreased.”

Similar research published two years earlier discovered that children who eat school breakfast closer to test-taking time perform better on standardized tests than those who skip breakfast or eat breakfast at home.

Consuming breakfast also improves kids’ cognitive performance on demanding tasks and their reaction to frustration, reports the “British Journal of Nutrition” in its article “Effects of diet on behaviour and cognition in children.”

“What we find particularly exciting is that [school breakfast] is a relatively simple intervention that can significantly improve children’s academic performance and psychological well-being,” said Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School’s School Breakfast Program Researcher J. Michael Murphy.


Food-Insecure Homes on the Rise

Food-Secure Households (2008) 85.4% (100 million)
Food-Secure Households (2007) 88.9%
Food-Insecure Households (2008) 14.6% (17.1 million)
Food-Insecure Households (2007) 11.1%
Source: USDA

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