Children lined up at the entrance to Wildwood Elementary School on Thursday morning as waiting adults handed out brown bags filled with apple juice, slices of orange and a breakfast pizza.
Bags in hand, the kids walked straight to their homerooms and ate at their tiny desks. The halls at this Baton Rouge public elementary school quickly grew silent.
“They eat it all,” said first-grade teacher Leah Hebert. “Whatever’s in that bag, they’re eating.”
By 8:30 a.m., class had begun, right on time.
“One of the goals is to get them in the classroom and keep them there,” said Principal Natalie Jadid. “We don’t want them to miss instruction.”
Wildwood is taking part in a federal initiative known as Breakfast in the Classroom. It’s an effort to ensure that more children participate in the federal School Breakfast Program, which began in 1966. Advocates say shifting breakfast to the classroom not only increases participation but means better school attendance, improved student discipline, fewer student health problems and increased instructional time.
As the name of the program suggests, students no longer eat breakfast in the cafeteria but instead eat in their classrooms. The idea has been adopted by several large school districts including Chicago, Dallas and Memphis, Tennessee. Even so, it is still the exception rather than the norm in public schools.
Jefferson Parish was an early adopter in Louisiana, as were many charter schools in New Orleans.
East Baton Rouge Parish was a holdout. For decades, all parish schools have offered free breakfast to all children. Still, many children have continued to pass up the first meal of the day.
Bill Ludwig is an administrator for the Food and Nutrition Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Ludwig has been pressing schools in his five-state region, which includes Louisiana, to try the program, telling them they can go back to the old way if they don’t like it.
“I’ve never had anyone ask to go back,” he said.
Then-East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Bernard Taylor agreed to launch a pilot program after speaking with Ludwig about it in summer 2014. Five schools, including Wildwood, were the initial adopters. That summer, the school system also joined another federal program, known as the Community Eligibility Provision, which allowed all children to eat lunch free as well.
Ludwig visited Baton Rouge earlier this month and met with Taylor’s successor, Warren Drake, to pitch the advantages of breakfast in the classroom.
At present, six Baton Rouge public schools are participating; two initial adopting schools closed, but three took their place. Between now and mid-October, three more are scheduled to join, bringing the total to nine.
Nadine Mann, director of child nutrition for the school system, said she is using the experience of early adopting schools to sell it to other schools.
“Principals need to see it in action to understand the benefits,” Mann said.
Initially, her office is focusing on elementary and middle schools but will later bring it to high schools.
“Once the elementary and middle school students learn to eat breakfast at school each day, then when they get to high school, they will be looking for breakfast,” Mann said.
Meanwhile, Communications Director Adonica Duggan is developing promotional videos for the program.
When Jadid took over as principal at Wildwood Elementary in 2014, breakfast was served the old way. She recalls it creating a lot of problems.
A line of kids would stretch each morning from the cafeteria all the way down to the main office. The halls were often noisy and there were conflicts as older kids mixed with younger kids.
Intimidated, some younger children chose to skip breakfast. Kids on a late bus might arrive after the cafeteria had closed. And children who did eat would take their time getting back to class, delaying the start of class.
Now, all of that is gone, Jadid said. And fewer children are tardy, they are more attentive and fewer want to see the school nurse, she said.
Jadid acknowledged that some teachers were initially resistant. The main complaint was that kids would mess up their rooms and that it would lead to roach infestations.
The meals, however, are pre-packaged and easily tossed. After breakfast, each teacher puts their filled garbage bag outside in the hallway and a school custodian comes around right away and picks them up.
Jadid said she also encouraged teachers to use the occasion as a way to teach children better manners.
“They need to learn how to clean up after themselves,” she said.
One selling point is that teachers themselves can eat breakfast for free if they help.
More kids are eating at Wildwood; average daily participation in school breakfast is 400 students, 86 more than a year ago. On Thursday, 440 students ate breakfast. Only a handful of children rejected a brown bag Thursday, saying they’d already eaten.
The most recent adopter, Progress Elementary, began serving breakfast in the classroom on Monday, and Principal LaShawn Stewart is already a fan.
“We’re really pleased,” Stewart said Friday. “I’ve seen a progression in just four or five days.”
Average daily participation at Progress is 330 students so far, 116 more than prior to the start of breakfast in the classroom.
Stewart said student discipline has improved, the halls are quiet, tardies are down and classes are starting on time.
“Literally, my building is a ghost town at 8:15 a.m.,” Stewart said.
Breakfast in the Classroom is not without its challenges. The additional breakfasts served require more storage space than all schools have. For instance, Greenbrier Elementary is getting a new $58,000 walk-in refrigerator/freezer installed before it can shift to classroom breakfasts, said Mann, the child nutrition director.
Mann has tapped Dianne Evans in her office to train food service workers and school leaders in ways to make the program work best. When done right, Evans said, schools can gain as much as 20 minutes more in instructional time.
Evans said it typically takes about two weeks for a school to work out the kinks before things run smoothly. Not all schools are the same, though. For instance, schools with more than one entrance may have two serving lines, she said.
While schools have come up with a variety of ways to package the food, Evans is a big fan of brown bags, for a simple reason.
“Kids love things in brown bags,” she said.