Breakfast Business

District with low free and reduced percentage finds financial success offering breakfast free to all students.

By Becky Schilling, Editor

Hallway kiosks are one method the district is using to
serve breakfast.

Everyone knows the saying, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Byron Sackett, child nutrition director for 12,000-student Lincoln County Schools, questioned why that notion wasn’t being taken to heart in his district. So Sackett thought the best way to add emphasis to breakfast was to offer the morning meal free to all students, regardless of their payment status.

LINCOLNTON, N.C.—Everyone knows the saying, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. One child nutrition director in North Carolina questioned why that notion wasn’t being taken to heart in his district.

“We’ve heard that [saying] since we were kids, but nobody seems to make [breakfast] such a big initiative, whether that be parents at home or school districts,” says Byron Sackett, child nutrition director for 12,000-student Lincoln County Schools. “Our society as a whole says it, but we don’t back it up. One of the things I did when I took over as child nutrition director [in 2009] was I said, let’s make breakfast the most important meal of the day.”

Free for all: Sackett thought the best way to add emphasis to breakfast was to offer the morning meal free to all students, regardless of their payment status. About 48% of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

Sackett says breakfast is not a socioeconomic issue. Instead, he views students’ non-eating of breakfast as a problem across the economic board, which led him to offer the meal free to all students, beginning two years ago.

Each school serves breakfast in different ways, from a traditional cafeteria model to breakfast in the classroom and kiosks in hallways. “Without support from the administration, [this program] is not going to happen, so we made sure the school-level administrators who are responsible for the building and the school improvement team have a say-so in how it’s done,” he adds. “Whatever works best for that school is the way we’re doing it.”

Schools offer both hot and cold breakfast options, depending on the service style. There is a minimum of three entrées offered daily.

Before starting the universal feeding program, breakfast participation hovered around 15%. Since starting the program it is between 40% and 50%. “We’re ecstatic about that. We’re not satisfied,” Sackett says. “We would like to see it closer to 70%. The high schools and middle schools are the biggest areas to grow. One of the high schools [was] averaging 80 kids a day, and this week they broke 400 for the first time. Everyone is involved; the principal at the school is involved. He comes down and [helps] serve breakfast and lunch to the students.”

The bottom line: Sackett says the department has benefitted financially from the new program. Several grants from organizations such as Share Our Strength and Fuel Up to Play 60 have helped fund the cause. In addition, Sackett has seen more students eating school lunch. “That’s the most amazing thing. There were a lot of kids who were afraid [of the school meal program because they didn’t understand it],” he says. “I would say about 4% or 5% of the students who never ate with us [before] are now coming through our lines.”

Labor hasn’t been an issue, Sackett adds. “I have to have a certain amount of labor hours whether we are serving 20 breakfasts or 400 breakfasts. By going to a  quick, grab-and-go breakfast—a lot of it is prepackaged items—we were actually able to sustain the amount of labor we were currently using, or decrease in a few cases. Instead of us losing money on breakfast, it is becoming a cash flow opportunity for us to put back into the lunch program. With the new regulations about to hit, some of the cost increases for lunch can be compensated by breakfast.”

Sackett says his department is helping other districts set up similar programs. “We want to be a leader and promote it out to everybody else,” he says.

“Find the one administrator who is going to be very supportive,” Sackett advises. “Roll it out slowly. Do it one school at a time. The best advocate that you can have is a principal who is going to go to his peers and say this is going to be great. Peers listen to each other better than someone from the outside. The principals and administrators are ultimately responsible for what happens in their schools, so respect that and get them involved in the process.”