How the North Little Rock nutrition team is boosting its breakfast participation

The nutrition team has steadily increased its breakfast participation by about 5% annually the past two school years.
North Little Rock students eating breakfast
The nutrition team at North Little Rock tries to make breakfast fun for students. | Photos courtesy of North Little Rock School District

When Director of Child Nutrition Mary Lee Dennis first came to North Little Rock School District in North Little Rock, Arkansas, at the start of the 2021-22 school year, her immediate supervisor approached her with a binder full of comments about the district’s breakfast program.   

At the time, participation in the program was around 30%, and Dennis knew she had to make some changes to get those numbers up.

Today, the program is on the upswing with participation steadily increasing each school year.  

“Each year we've grown by about 5%,” says Dennis. “[Our total breakfast participation] so far this year, has hovered and stayed around 40% to 42%.”

The team’s efforts to drive up morning meal counts have not gone unnoticed. They were recently awarded the “Largest Increase in Breakfast Participation award” as part of The Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance’s 2024 School Breakfast Month Challenge.

Over the past two years, the team has boosted its breakfast program through embracing change and offering a bit of fun for students as they come into the cafeteria each day for their morning meal.

Getting organized

As with most change, it was hard in the beginning for staff to get used to switching things up during their breakfast service.

One way Dennis encouraged staff to embrace the new direction they were headed in, was by showing the data behind why the team needed to make these changes.

“I don't think a lot of directors sometimes go into data with their managers, whether that's because they don't really understand it themselves, or they don't think it's applicable, but I think it really was important to show them what their numbers were and how many students they have, and just how many they were actually missing out on,” she says.

Another piece that was essential to helping staff with the changes, Dennis says, was providing a space for open communication and transparency. Managers meet with Dennis weekly to discuss what’s going well with breakfast and what’s not working. For things that aren’t working, Dennis encourages the team to problem solve to find ways to fix them.

“If they would tell me 'no' about something, I would say, ‘Okay, perfect, no, but then provide me with an alternate, provide me with a solution,’” she says.

Dennis has also made some tech changes on the backend to make things more seamless for staff. Each manager, for example, now has access to a google drive which contains a variety of resources, including a google sheet with every single recipe along with the ingredients in the recipe and their Sysco number.

“It’s a one-stop shop,” says Dennis. “They can pull their menu, see what's on it, then pull this sheet up and be able to effectively order the things that they need to order and be able to forecast.”

Fresh food served with a side of fun

Today, the team has removed approximately 90% of the prepackaged items on its breakfast menu.  

“For the most part, [the menu is] more scratch-prepared breakfast items,” says Dennis.

New options like a pancake bar, which allows students to top their flapjacks with a choice of blueberries, strawberries or chocolate chips, have become a fan-favorite, especially among younger eaters. The meal is also served with a choice of sausage or bacon.

At the older grade levels, smoothies and parfaits take the crown for the most popular menu items. Dennis has also tried to incorporate dishes that students would pick up at the drive-thru before coming to school like a sausage biscuit.  

Alongside the new offerings, Dennis and the team have been placing a high focus on celebrating school breakfast and putting fun into mealtime.

During National Waffle Day, for example, the team worked with school administrators to make flyers advertising the day and promoted it on social media. National School Breakfast Week which is held every year in March, is also an excuse to go all out and celebrate school meals, Dennis says. “[This year], we had a fun, friendly competition between all of our schools where whoever had the best decorated cafeteria won a prize.”

Banana split
Breakfast Banana Splits were a menu item served during National School Breakfast Week this year. 

School principals and other administrators came down to the cafeteria to serve breakfast during the week as well.

Events and activities like these spread the word about the program and nutrition team’s accomplishments, driving up both participation and team morale.

“All of my staff are the ones that make this work every single day,” says Dennis. “So, the more and more people that I can get on board and to see what we do is super crucial.”

Offering a second chance breakfast

Heading into next year, Dennis and are exploring ways to drive participation up even further. One way is by offering older students, who often don’t get to school early enough to have breakfast in the cafeteria, the chance to grab breakfast after their first class.

“They wake up and get to the school right at tardy bell sometimes,” says Dennis.

This summer, Dennis will be meeting with building administrators and other district stakeholders to work on a plan to offer these students another breakfast option later in the morning.

Ideally, Dennis would like to provide them with the chance to grab breakfast in between classes from breakfast carts that are strategically placed in the hallways.

Due to the district being located in a low-income area, Dennis feels it’s especially important to make sure that students have access to a morning meal no matter what time they show up for school.  

While the team still has a long way to go to get every student participating in school breakfast, Dennis is proud of what the team has accomplished these past two years and is looking forward to continuing to grow the program as time goes on.

“There's lots of work that still needs to be done, however, it just shows in two short years, how many more students that you can capture when you're doing that work,” she says.



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