District Makes Breakfast Accessible (And Free) For All
“Although breakfast has always been available in Palm Beach County schools, it hasn’t been easily accessible,” said Lori Dornbusch, Assistant Director for Site Based Operations. “And we wanted to change that.” For the past nine years, the School Food Service Department in Palm Beach County, Florida has been methodically working to qualify schools to participate in a 100% Accessible Breakfast program that would allow all students to receive a free breakfast regardless of their economic status.
This effort in Palm Beach County really took off because of a superintendent who challenged every department in the school district to find something they could do to support academics and student performance. The food service department decided that making sure students had breakfast was the most important thing they could do. Even though breakfast is free for those who need it and the computerized system makes it impossible to tell which students are getting a free meal, the department felt that eating breakfast at school still had a stigma around it. The only way to get around that is to make it clear that breakfast is free for everyone. Then everyone can use the program and the students that really need it will feel more comfortable taking advantage of it.
The district started with two pilot schools in 2003 which helped them identify challenges and barriers and tweak the program accordingly. An intensive communication program was implemented to bring district leadership into the decision making circle. The department first started communicating their intentions with the superintendent, the chief academic officer and the chief operating officer. Once they had their support, they reached out to principals. The program has been rolled out methodically over the last eight years, starting with schools with the highest percentage of FRL students and working down. This year all schools are participating.
“Every student is rung up at the register,” said Dornbusch, “and if they are on FRL, we are reimbursed. If they are not, we are reimbursed less but the student does not have to pay for the difference. Even so, the program is funding itself. For some of the schools that have a low FRL population we have seen increases of 150-250% in participation. Some principals say that they don’t need a breakfast program in higher income schools but these numbers show that even affluent families can have struggles that result in a child not eating breakfast. And we need all kids eating breakfast so they can perform better. Breakfast is a valuable tool to help improve academics.”
Kim Sandmaier, wellness coordinator for the School District of Palm Beach County, is a member of the Alliance’s Healthy Schools Program Champions Network. She explains that, "Our district’s wellness mission is to holistically address health and wellness for students, staff and the community. The Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program creates a framework and tool for success that allows us to improve lives. In our commitment to make campuses healthier, providing our students a healthy breakfast and lunch improves student health, reduces childhood obesity and ultimately improves student academic performance."