A recent series of articles and reader comments in the Los Angeles Times brought attention to the fact that Universal Breakfast in the Classroom (UBIC) programs are extremely controversial, but conversations about the issue tend to be more ideological than practical.

In the case of Los Angeles Unified School District, the subject arose as part of a larger, fierce conflict between the teachers’ union and the superintendent. To illustrate their belief that the superintendent is “anti-teacher,” the union publicized an internal poll that found a slight majority of teachers oppose breakfast in the classroom, which the superintendent promoted.

Dean Zatkowsky

Despite the fact that this was a small majority of a small sample in a very large district, polled for cynical reasons, the teachers’ concerns are not unfounded and ought to be addressed by people interested in improving the health and learning ability of students. Classrooms face many challenges implementing breakfast programs, and fair-minded people can reasonably debate the benefit of feeding students breakfast in the classroom at all.

But as I read the charges, counter-charges, and emotional opinions on the subject, a very practical question arose: Why does the program work well in some schools and not in others? Even within schools, why does it work better in some classrooms than in others?

The Orfalea Foundation’s School Food Initiative prides itself on taking an entrepreneurial approach to its work, and one of our entrepreneurial tenets is the idea that success leaves clues. So I went out to Kermit McKenzie Junior High School in Guadalupe, California, to talk to students, teachers, food-service personnel, and the principal about their relatively new but well-received UBIC program.

Teacher Concerns are Legitimate: Teachers are absolutely correct about the potential problems: UBIC can lead to messes and pests, it can interfere with teaching time, the classroom is not designed for dining, and managing a meal is just one more thing for teachers to do – something added to an overwhelming list that has grown steadily for over 100 years. How did the team at Kermit McKenzie address these issues?

Principal Sal Reynoso concedes that working with older students made implementation easier. “When the idea was presented to me, I wanted to find another local junior high that was doing it, but there were none. There were elementary schools doing it, however, and I thought, ‘If an elementary school can do it, then we can do it.’” Kermit McKenzie does not face the spill issues common to elementary schools, but they still have to deal with a lot of potential messes. “Some classrooms have sinks, and some do not,” says Reynoso, “How do you deal with unfinished milk? You establish conventions. In rooms with sinks, they dump the excess milk down the drain. In other classes, the kids make sure they close their cartons before putting them in the bin, and custodians know to immediately rinse any trash container where milk has been spilled.”

Facing the Challenges; Embracing the Benefits: The caution with which Principal Reynoso introduced the program helped to mitigate potential problems, both practical and attitudinal. “The biggest obstacle was me understanding how it was going to work and getting it all mapped out. I needed to understand it really well so I could explain it to parents and teachers and staff and students and the school board. How do we transport the food, deal with milk spills, pick up the trash, etc. When teachers or students had concerns, I asked them for solutions and they came up with them. We figured this out together. I believe in being fair, open, honest, and transparent. I don’t want to sneak anything in; I want us all to have that shared vision.”

Part of the shared vision was an appreciation of the program’s potential benefits, and that went a long way toward addressing the twin concerns of additional demands on each teacher and the potential loss of teaching time. According to teacher Rosie Garcia, the benefits have proven more impressive in practice than in theory. “I see two things happening: One is social, because students have conversations at the table while eating. Instead of just rushing to eat and run, they are forming friendships and bonds while breaking bread together. And the other thing is that well into second period I see kids who are more alert and better focused. That’s just anecdotal and in the classes I teach, but it’s what I see. This is an intervention class that I have for three periods in the morning, and I’ve seen a marked improvement in their ability to focus and stay with me for longer periods of time.”

Garcia has also noticed that kids “spill the cup,” as she puts it, by excitedly sharing all their news with each other over breakfast. “And because they get to have these conversations first thing in the morning, it cuts down on the amount of talking in class, because they share all the urgent things they came to school dying to tell each other, like what they saw on Facebook the night before. And then once class starts, they’re ready to go. So I’ve won back some teaching time through Breakfast in the Classroom. We cover the daily announcements during breakfast, so the actual teaching time diverted is only about ten minutes. I get a lot more than that back through their increased attention throughout the morning.”

Teacher Robin Ilac adds, “That first ten minutes of socialization is important because you cannot teach unless you have relationships with the kids. Those first ten minutes go toward building relationships.” Eighth-grader Eduardo G. also appreciates the social benefits of UBIC: “It’s good because we get to eat with our friends, and that didn’t always happen in the cafeteria; we get to eat with more people.”

Students garner health benefits that also improve the classroom environment. Most adults understand that low blood sugar impedes concentration and causes irritability and behavior problems; so imagine a classroom full of children, half of whom have not eaten since dinner the night before, 12 to 18 hours ago. It can be a battlefield, but not anymore at Kermit McKenzie Junior High, according to Principal Reynoso.

“Students are more attentive now – and I’m hearing this from teachers: They seem better able to concentrate. And as principal, I don’t have any problems in the morning.” He adds, laughing, “…not till after lunch.”

“Now I walk through classrooms and I see a different environment. Kids aren’t just twiddling their thumbs while listening to the morning announcements. After the announcements, they have about ten minutes to eat and socialize, and they’re talking about what happened at the basketball game last night, or how was your weekend, or whatever it may be. And so now we’re not battling that – they come in first thing in the morning and they want to talk to their friends and share. So we let them do so for a few minutes, and I believe this has totally changed the culture of our school, the staff, parents, everything.”

But Why The Classroom Instead of the Cafeteria?: Although most adults can agree that properly nourished kids learn and behave better, that fact in itself is no endorsement of Universal Breakfast in the Classroom. After all, Kermit McKenzie’s cafeteria was serving breakfast before the introduction of the classroom service. The key lies in participation. Because of high poverty rates in the district, the school receives federal funding to provide free breakfast to all students, but few participated when breakfast was served in the cafeteria. “Before, maybe half of my students had a daily breakfast, but now it’s one hundred percent because they eat in the classroom,” says Garcia.

Principal Reynoso notes that 100% participation has been a big relief to parents. “Now they know that their kids are going to eat, because when they leave home, you don’t really know if they’re going to go to the cafeteria or go straight to the basketball court. Now we know that when they go into the classroom, breakfast is being served and that is the norm and they are going to eat.”

On a practical level, I wondered how the doubling of participation affected food service. According to cafeteria manager Ursula Guerrero, “It’s a little bit more work for us, but if more kids are going to be eating, we just change our routine so we can make it work. Participation has doubled, but the work has not doubled. We did a lot of preparation, and a lot of research about the program.”

I asked Guerrero what she would tell other food service departments. “It’s work, but you’re going to feel good, because all of the kids are getting to eat.” I also asked how much of the food delivered to classrooms is getting eaten, and she estimated 90-95%. “Very little comes back, and that is usually because of absences.”

Why Does it Work Here?: I noticed a common theme when talking to students, teachers, staff, and Principal Reynoso: Everything I asked about, they had already discussed, repeatedly, with each other. If I had to credit a single thing for the success at Kermit McKenzie Junior High School, it would be an environment where people listen to each other. Here were some of the clues:

Cafeteria Manager Ursula Guerrero: “For the future, we’ll change the items. We just started, so we went with the easy items, but we’re looking at serving more hot foods, things that the kids like. Some of the kids don’t like the cereal bars; we’re listening to their opinions so we can make it better for them.”

Teacher Rosie Garcia: “I’m dealing with older kids, so I’m sure the time I spent front-loading this program was easier than someone dealing with elementary school kids, but we spent the first week setting the norms about how to lay out our napkins, how to clean up after ourselves, distributing the food, saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ So it took a few extra minutes each day during the first week, but now we have a simple routine. And even at this age, as much as they buck the system, routine is important to them.”

Principal Sal Reynoso: “I talked to teachers and I talked to a lot of students, because ultimately they are the ‘customers.’ I really wanted their input. And I found that although we are supposed to be feeding all students, we were regularly feeding less than half. So I took it to the leadership team.” He noted that the teachers wanted to implement the program right away, but he delayed the launch until he felt that staff, students, and parents were ready.

As I interviewed students about their likes and dislikes, Reynoso constantly prodded them: “How can we make this better?” That participative solution-orientation permeates the culture of the school (as we noted in a previous article about the switch from disposables to durables on wholechildaction.org. “The first time we served muffins they were cold and crumbly,” Reynoso said. “The students told me. I told Ursula, and she said, ‘Well, why don’t we warm them up?’ So we did, and now it doesn’t crumble, and problem solved.”

A Word on “Moral Hazard”: Many news and social media comments on this topic cite the moral hazard of a “nanny state” feeding children and encouraging parents to abdicate responsibility.” However, the idea that leaving children hungry and uneducated will somehow teach their parents a lesson seems at best counter-productive and, at worst, socially depraved. Those hungry, disruptive kids impact everyone’s education, and everyone’s future.

Ultimately, I don’t see the value of debating moral hazard in a society where the relief of individual debt is forbidden because it reduces risk aversion, but the forgiveness of institutional debt is declared a social good. I think the case for Universal Breakfast in the Classroom must be made on practical virtues alone, because ideologues cannot and will not be convinced. Schools that execute UBIC effectively improve student behavior and classroom efficiency: That is an empirical observation from professional educators. Success leaves clues. Local leadership and courage, as exhibited at Kermit McKenzie Junior High School, remind us that the person who says it cannot be done is often interrupted by the person who is doing it.

The Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing: Like Principal Reynoso, I wanted to hear from students, so I asked a group of eighth-graders if they liked the new program. Belying the idea that adolescents are completely self-obsessed, many of the students I interviewed liked the program because their peers got to eat.

Alejandro V.: “I think it’s a pretty good idea that everybody gets to eat.”

Stefannie R.: “Eating in the classroom is good because they say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and all the kids are eating breakfast in class now; half of us didn’t before.”

Maya A.: “Before, when people came to school a little late they didn’t get to eat, but now they can still get to class on time and everyone eats.”

Lizbeth C.: “When you’re not eating you get distracted easily, because you’re hungry, and not focusing on the subject that the teacher’s teaching, so I think it’s a really good idea to have breakfast in the classroom.”

I kept returning to my recording of eighth grader Jazmin M., who calmly explained why she liked Universal Breakfast in the Classroom. “It’s good because everybody gets it, because some people don’t get to eat at home, some people may not have food at home.” In fact, about 23% of the children in Santa Barbara County don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

Previously on the Whole Child Action website , we noted with some amusement that parents receive letters from school during testing week urging that children receive a healthy breakfast to improve their performance on tests. If breakfast is important for test performance, perhaps it is important for learning too.

Standing on the playground of Kermit McKenzie Junior High School, which is bordered by extensive farm fields, I was struck by the irony of the Universal Breakfast in the Classroom controversy.

Many of those kids’ parents work in agriculture – these kids miss breakfast because their parents are out in the fields, breaking their backs to ensure I have easy access to the world’s finest produce.

As Principal Reynoso explained, “Here at McKenzie, a lot of parents are gone by five o’clock in the morning. Our kids have to wake themselves up, get themselves ready, but not only that, get their younger siblings ready, take them to school, and then walk over to our school. So a lot of kids don’t have time for food in the morning. A lot of kids don’t have access to food in the morning. And if they showed up too late for the cafeteria, they would lose out and their next chance to eat would be lunch. But now, even the kids who have to do all those things in the morning know that in their first period class they’re going to get breakfast. They can be assured of that.”

As a longtime businessperson, I would love to conclude this article with an airtight return-on-investment case for Universal Breakfast in the Classroom. But even during my 30 years in business, we rarely saw an airtight case for a new product. Instead, we acted on the preponderance of evidence available to us, and whatever we could learn from existing role models and best practices. Kermit McKenzie Junior High School’s rollout of Universal Breakfast in the Classroom presents role models and best practices other schools would do well to study. And they are now reaping the rewards of leadership: Says Reynoso, “Now it feels like a more family-oriented school. I see kids sitting together eating, talking to friends in a calm voice, not yelling, just chatting with each other over a meal. Just eating and talking – that is such an awesome sight to see.”

Former marketing executive, Dean Zatkowsky is communications manager for the Orfalea Foundation. He has authored or co-authored three books on business and investing: Two Billion Dollars in Nickels (Booksurge, 2009), The Entrepreneurial Investor (Wiley, 2007), and E Pluribus Kinko’s: A Story of Business, Democracy, and Freaky Smart People (Booksurge, 2009).


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