School food, including school breakfast and school lunch, has the potential to reduce food insecurity and diet-related disease among children in East Harlem. Several barriers exist to implementing Breakfast in the Classroom (BIC) in public elementary schools in East Harlem. A recent assessment of school participation in BIC revealed that a majority of public elementary schools in East Harlem do not participate in the program. There is often a lack of incentive and accountability for school administrators to implement the meal program successfully. In addition, BIC is often underutilized due to time constraints, lack of student appeal, and social issues related to a stigma of receiving a free meal. We also want to investigate the nutritional quality of the foods being served in the BIC program. Are the foods nutritious? Are the breakfast foods culturally-sensitive? We are interested in exploring if these factors also affect program adoption in East Harlem schools.
School administrators in East Harlem and advocacy organizations were surveyed to understand the current state of breakfast programs, focusing on improvements and strategies for schools to put in place to make sure as many students are eating breakfast as possible. A customized interview guide for school administrators was developed and conducted in four East Harlem elementary schools, two of which are successfully utilizing the Breakfast in the Classroom program, and two which have traditional cafeteria breakfast. These schools had been previously identified by other sources as being generally willing to cooperate in community-based research. Investigators spoke primarily with principals and assistant principals, with an additional intention to include teachers and parents. Gaining access to the pre-selected school environments in East Harlem proved to be extremely complicated and produced a very limited sample, as discussed in the barriers section.
Investigation of schools which have not adopted any special programs to improve breakfast participation resulted in revealing several concerns and probably barriers to adopting BIC and Grab-and-Go programs, including:
1) The pushback they would receive from custodial and cafeteria staff for adding responsibilities to their present obligations
2) The loss of instructional time if breakfast were part of the regular school day
3) Fear of added trash and refuse from classroom breakfast, which could entice rodents and;
4) BIC and Grab-and-Go programs only offer cold food and parents prefer that students receive hot breakfast foods.
Through our interviews with school-food partner organizations, we received three main takeaways. First, we heard that principal buy in is essential to creating change in school food and that the current system does not provide many incentives for principals to change the status quo. Second, we learned that schools need flexibility and creativity to address their individual challenges related to school food. Finally, communication among stakeholders and schools is imperative to fully understand each individual school’s food culture and share best practices.
In order to effectively increase breakfast participation rates, we need to generate buy-in from the school principal. Our first policy recommendation is the NYC Department of Education (DOE) mandate an annual professional development session for school principals before the beginning of the school year. Additionally, the NYC DPHO currently rewards schools that participate in wellness programs through its annual Excellence in School Wellness Award. Schools who document over 40% of breakfast participation rates receive higher scores on the application and can apply to receive a Platinum and/or Gold level award, which is presented an at awards ceremony, attended by the borough president and/or other city officials at the end of the school year. This could serve as further incentive for principals to increase breakfast participation and position their schools as model “Wellness Champions” in their district. Lastly, we propose collaborating with the DOE Office of School Wellness to develop and distribute a resource guide for school wellness councils about increasing breakfast participation rates.
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LaShekia Chatman, Emily Ferris, Diana Johnson, Janet Lee, Anna Poaster