Thursday, September 23, 2010

Maryland Meals for Achievement

How can you make a difference in children's learning? Feed them breakfast in the classroom at the start of the day!

This is what Maryland has found, in a program called Maryland Meals for Achievement (MMFA). Although many schools offer breakfast to students in the cafeteria before school, MMFA offers breakfast to every student, right in their classroom. No rushing off to the cafeteria at the start of the day.

MMFA cuts down on the number of tardy students, decreases suspensions, increases the number of students meeting their yearly progress goals, and increases test scores. The teachers find that, although it lengthens the school day slightly, it settles the class down and gets the day off to a good start. The teachers often use this time to speak with individual students about general topics, take attendance, etc. Most teachers wouldn’t want to give up MMFA now that they’ve experienced the difference it makes in their students.

To learn more about MMFA and see the program in action, we visited New Hampshire Estates Elementary School in Silver Spring, MD. This school houses Head Start, pre-Kindergarten and K-2nd grade. We met with Montgomery County Food Services Director Marla Caplon (seated on the right), as well as Bruce Schenkel (seated on the left), Brenda Schwaab (center), and Adrienne Burroughs (second from left) from the School and Community Nutrition Programs Branch of the Maryland State Department of Education, and Principal Marinda Evans (second from right). They are passionate advocates for MMFA.

The students arrived at 8:30, and instruction started at 8:50. During these initial 20 minutes, the students put away their backpacks and homework, washed their hands, and ate their breakfast.

Federal rules say that breakfast includes at least 3 of 4 offerings. The day we were there, the entrée was Bagelfuls (which counted as 2 offerings); beverages milk and orange juice were also offered.

Classroom teachers keep track of who receives breakfast and who doesn’t.  Each student takes a bar-coded card with their name on it, and puts it into the “yes” or “no” envelope to indicate whether they took breakfast or not. The cards are then swiped into the computer by cafeteria staff, because state and federal funding depend on accurate accounting of who receives breakfast.

MMFA has been growing in size and popularity since 1998 when it began as a pilot program in six schools. All those we interviewed would love to see MMFA expanded to cover all schools, but it does cost the state of Maryland money. Today, MMFA is only offered in schools in which more than 40% of the students qualify for free or reduced cost meals. The federal government buys breakfast for those students, and the state buys breakfast for the remaining students who eat breakfast. Today, state funding is only enough to support MMFA in 206 schools of the more than 700 that are eligible.

We left with Brenda’s words forming the theme of our visit: “Education is expensive. If a child is hungry, we’re wasting education dollars.”  We agree.

Research backs up the observations of the MMFA teachers. For example, see “Evaluation of the School Breakfast Program Pilot Project,” “Breakfast for Learning,” and “Classroom Breakfast Scores High in Maryland” for more information on the benefits of breakfast (and breakfast in the classroom).

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