Grab n Go Breakfast Increases Participation in
the School Breakfast Program
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but when
students stay in bed until the last minute, even the most well-intentioned parents
may be sending their children off to school without morning nourishment. The
crunch for time in the morning was among several reasons why a middle school
in Pennsylvania initiated a grab n go breakfast program and conducted
a study to determine its effect on breakfast participation. The objective was
to compare breakfast participation with a grab n go service to participation
when using a traditional service during the same month the previous year.
The project team initiated a grab n go breakfast
for one month toward the end of the school year in 2002. At the end of the month,
breakfast participation was compared to participation during the same month
in 2001. Investigators used a t-test assuming unequal variances for analyzing
participation data. They also tracked changes in food and labor costs associated
with the new breakfast service.
Breakfast participation in 2002 significantly increased for
all categories of students. The interesting finding was that when breakfast
was brought to students in an unrestricted hallway, more students receiving
free and reduced-priced meals chose to participate as well.
Applications to Child Nutrition Professionals
School foodservice directors should consider grab n go service to
increase breakfast participation, in general, but also should view this type
of service as a way to promote access for all children. School foodservice directors
also should consider several practical tips on establishing a grab n
In 2002, 8.1 million schoolchildren participated
in the School Breakfast Program (SBP), and 83% (6.7 million) of these meals
were served to economically disadvantaged children (Food Research and Action
Center [FRAC], 2002). At the time of the research in 2003, a similar percentage
of breakfast participants received free or reduced-price meals (Food and Nutrition
Service, 2003). Most school foodservice directors view the SBP as much more
than a program for children from economically disadvantaged homes. The directors
work to increase breakfast participation rates because of the importance of
breakfast to healthy eating. Every child, regardless of socioeconomic status,
should consume breakfast.
Burghardt, Devaney, and Gordon (1995) found that
children who participated in the SBP had a higher intake of calories, calcium,
riboflavin, phosphorus, and magnesium than nonparticipants. In a study of 9th-graders,
23% of females and 14% of males did not eat breakfast, and skipping breakfast
was associated with less-healthful overall food intake (Nicklas, Reger, Myers,
& ONeil, 2000). Several researchers have concluded that skipping breakfast
is related to childhood obesity because it contributes to the making of poor
food choices over the rest of the day and concentrates more caloric consumption
at lunch and dinner (Bellisle, Rolland-Cachera, Deheeger, & Guilloud-Bataille,
1988; Maffeis, Provera, Sidoti, Schen, Pinelli, & Tato, 2000; Ortego, Requejo,
Lopez-Sobaler, Quintas, Andres,Redondo, Navia, Lopez-Bonilla, & Rivas, 1998).
Eating breakfast has been found to reduce dietary fat intake and minimize impulsive
snacking, which is helpful in attaining or maintaining a healthy weight (Schlundt,
Hill, Sbrocco, Pope-Cordle, & Sharp, 1992).
When FRAC asked about obstacles to increasing participation
in the SBP, officials who manage these programs at the state level listed several
reasons. The first (74%) and second (53%) highest reasons listed were, respectively,
that school buses arrived too late and that students were unwilling or unable
to arrive at school early enough to eat breakfast. Other reasons included: school
staff were opposed to providing breakfast in the classroom (49%); the breakfast
period did not provide enough time for students to eat (40%); and students did
not wish to be perceived as poor by participating in breakfast (33%)
(FRAC, 2002). Other researchers have shown that perceived welfare stigma might
affect students willingness to take advantage of the SBP (Gleason, 1995;
Kennedy & Davis, 1998).
Confronted with a low breakfast participation rate, a school
foodservice director in Pennsylvania joined forces with university researchers
to study the relationship between alternative service strategies and breakfast
participation. The basic problem to address was how to increase participation
in the SBP in a suburban middle school with low student eligibility for free
and reduced-price meals. The school enrolled 892 students in Grades 6 through
8. Fifteen percent (136 students) were certified for free and reduced-price
meals, but only 4% of the total student population ate breakfast at school.
The districts school foodservice director, school
administrator, cafeteria manager, school custodian, and researchers formed a
project team to address the problem. Donated funds for equipment and capital
improvements for the project were received from the American Dairy Association
and Dairy Council Mid East, Mid-Atlantic Dairy Association, and the Pennsylvania
Department of Agriculture.
At this particular middle school, the project team
chose not to address morning bus schedules, which experts listed as the primary
problem, but to concentrate on other critical areas that could be addressed
directly by the school foodservice program. The group focused on designing a
way in which to improve service anonymity, as well as the effectiveness of the
It was apparent to the project team that the physical
layout of the school presented a potential barrier. Students entered school
from the bus unloading area into a main traffic aisle that flows into an atrium
near the schools administrative offices. The cafeteria is located on the
right of this traffic aisle, separated by a wall of windows. If students wanted
to eat breakfast, they must walk through the dining area to the serving line
and cashiers station. All students at the cashiers station entered
a number associated with a pre-paid debit system to protect the anonymity of
those receiving free and reduced-price meals. The schools administration
had made a previous decision to restrict morning access to the dining area to
only those students who ate breakfast. Due to this policy and the clear view
from the atrium and hall of all who ate breakfast in the dining area, many middle
school students surmised, correctly or not, that students in the dining area
were getting a welfare meal.
Grab n Go Service
One strategy to increase participation, suggested by the
School Food Service Foundation (currently, the Child Nutrition Foundation),
is to bring breakfast to all students through an alternative to the traditional
cafeteria line called grab n go. As described in a Foundation publication,
this service attracts students to temperature-controlled carts located in main
traffic areas remote from the cafeteria. School foodservice employees can offer
breakfast food, milk, and juice before and, occasionally, between morning classes.
Once the food items are obtained, students can consume them on their way to
class or eat their meal during the first class period (School Food Service Foundation,
In the case of this middle school, the atrium within
the main traffic aisle was an ideal area to serve a grab n go breakfast.
The plan included suspending regular service in the cafeteria so the grab n
go service would be the only source of school breakfast. In this setting, all
children would be presented with the opportunity to eat breakfast as they walked
to their homerooms.
Capital Improvements and Equipment
The most important issue to solve in developing this service
was the ability to use the computerized cash register in the new area. The project
team wanted the new service to be sustainable, so no attempt was made to offer
a free breakfast for all students. The computer system was required to maintain
proper record keeping, and without this computerization, the anonymity of using
pre-paid debit system would be negated at the point of sale. Donated funds were
used to bring the computer network wiring into the atrium, cost of approximately
$700, which was the largest single capital expenditure necessary to make the
grab n go service a reality. Additionally, a milk cooler was donated
by the Dairy Council. The school foodservice program already had received a
portable serving line from a previous grant that could be used for the grab
n go breakfast line. The project team considered purchasing larger
trashcans, but found that the current size was suitable when extra liners were
The school principal had been involved in the decision to
investigate the impact of an alternative breakfast service in the middle school
from the beginning. After determining equipment availability, the next step
in the project was to elicit support for the project from the school staff who
would be affected by the new service, particularly teachers and custodians.
The project team met with the school administrative council about the proposed
breakfast service. The council was composed of an administrator, teachers, administrative
assistants, and a custodian. The teachers spoke about having enough time to
eat, messes in classrooms and halls, inadequate size of trashcans, and disruptions
to first period classes. Interestingly, the custodian did not seem to think
the grab n go service represented an excessive burden to him in
relation to the potential benefit to students. Despite the concerns expressed,
there was sufficient support from the teachers and others on the council to
move the project forward. The school foodservice director and the administrative
council agreed the alternative breakfast service would begin the last month
of the school year. This allowed a natural ending to the pilot program in the
event it was determined to end.
Food and Labor Costs
In order to facilitate the speed of service at the grab n
go station, offer versus serve regulations were suspended. Although breakfast
food items did not change from what was offered in the cafeteria, more items
were incorporated into the meal than what was chosen, on average, by students
under offer versus serve. As a result, average breakfast food costs were increased
by 19 cents per meal. However, on a positive side, serving the additional breakfast
food components resulted in meeting all nutrient goals for meals served, which
was not the case under offer versus serve regulations. The grab n
go service required one additional hour of labor per day for set-up of the grab
n go station. The same employees who served as cashier and server
when the breakfast was offered in the cafeteria worked the new grab n
Supply Costs and Trash Removal
Foodservice staff did not bag breakfast items prior to service.
Students were offered several choices of food items, which they bagged themselves.
The cost of each bag was approximately nine cents. As predicted by the custodian,
the handling of extra trash in the classroom was not a problem. He placed one
extra trashcan liner on each homeroom teachers chair for morning trash
collection. Neither teachers nor custodians complained about excessive mess
generated by the grab n go service.
Advertising and Promotions
At least two weeks before the grab n go service
began, signs about the alternative breakfast service were posted throughout
the school cafeteria and the atrium area of the school. A letter was sent home
to parents announcing the service in hopes of generating their excitement and
encouragement of their children to eat breakfast at school. Through the use
of donated funds, the project team also was able to offer a kick-off
free breakfast to all students and staff at the school on the first day of the
new breakfast service. School foodservice employees delivered 1,038 bagged meals
and milk on the first day to homerooms. The second day began the actual grab
n go service in the school atrium.
The average daily attendance at this school is relatively
stable, which was the case from 2001 to 2002. As it was the end of the school
year, eating patterns annually change during this time and the researchers used
breakfast participation data from May 2001 in order to determine whether a change
in participation could be associated with the grab n go service.
Table 1 shows an increase in
breakfast participation from May 2001 to May 2002. A t-test assuming unequal
variances was conducted using the SAS statistical package, version 8.02. Participation
rates in May 2002 increased overall and in each meal category relative to May
2001. The most notable increase was in the paid meal category (t[24 d.f.]=22.96;
p< 0.000), but this group of students was the largest and had the greatest
An interesting finding was the effect on the other
meal categories. Student breakfasts also significantly increased for free (t[32
d.f.]=3.59; p< 0.001) and reduced-price meals (t(38 d.f.]=3.37; p< 0.002).
The total impact of the project was to increase May 2002 breakfast participation
by approximately 2.5 times the participation in May 2001, or an increase in
the breakfast participation rate of approximately 9%.
CONCLUSIONS AND APPLICATION
The project team considered the grab n
go service a success. Teachers and teachers aides (N = 74) rated their
opinions on a Likert-type scale (strongly disagree=1 to strongly agree=5) concerning
whether the grab n go service should be continued in Fall 2002,
69% agreed or strongly agreed with continuing the grab n go service.
Only 7% disagreed or strongly disagreed that the service should be continued,
and 24% were neutral.
The school foodservice director favored continuing
the grab n go service the following school year. The cafeteria manager
and foodservice employees supported the new service, and the percent increase
in participation, although not outstanding in the strict sense of the numbers,
was moving in the right direction and was expected to make a difference in the
eating habits of more middle school children. Rather than make adjustments in
food and labor costs, the foodservice director decided to increase the price
of the meal and portion sizes of some food items, while continuing to serve
all breakfast meal components in order to enhance calories, calcium, and other
Two questions come to mind when evaluating this project:
Will the results be sustainable, and what factors might contribute to its reproducibility
in other school districts?
In May 2003, an average of 67 middle school students
per day in all meal categories elected to eat breakfast from the grab n
go carts in the school atrium. While the rate of breakfast participation had
not been maintained at the 2002 rate, participation in 2003 was almost double
that of May 2001 (Table 1).
For paying students, cost undoubtedly played a role in the reduction of 2003
breakfast participation from 2002 levels. Gleason (1995) found that paying students
were very price sensitive. He observed a reduction in participation of 3% with
an increase of 20 cents in price. The cost of breakfast in this middle school
was increased by 50 cents, yet the participation rate of students was only 1%
lower than the 2002 rate.
|Table 1. Means and standard deviations for participating students in the School Breakfast Program by pay categories
(May 2001 and May 2002)
(M + sd)
(M + sd)
||25 ± 3.2
||30 ± 5.4a
||2 ± 1.4
||4 ± 1.6b
||7 ± 2.4
||47 ± 7.6c
||35 ± 3.9
||81 ± 11.3d
a t(32 d.f.) = 3.59, p< 0.001
b t(38 d.f.) = 3.37, p< 0.002
c t(24 d.f.) = 22.96, p< 0.000
d t(24 d.f.) = 17.86, p< 0.000
A bigger story was the sustainability of participation
by students in the free and reduced-price meal categories. Of 2003s total,
the average number of students in the paid and free meal categories were equal
in number (28), which had not been the case prior to the grab n
go service. An average of 11 students in the reduced-price category ate breakfast
in May 2003, which was an increase over May 2002. These findings reinforce issues
of access and anonymity for economically disadvantaged children. School foodservice
directors should consider grab n go service to increase breakfast
participation in general, but also view this type of service as a way to promote
access for all children. Taking an obvious walk to the cafeteria may, for some
students, be sufficient disincentive, causing them to forego the most important
meal of the day.
The second question focuses on reproducibility. This
project was helped through a donation of funds for capital improvements and
equipment. Other school foodservice directors similarly may find sources of
support for alternative breakfast service in their regions or communities. Regional
Dairy Councils may offer small grants to begin this type of program and also
may furnish portable serving and milk carts for the project. Action for Healthy
Kids (AFHK) teams in each state also have funds to promote state goals for enhancing
healthy school environments. If a school foodservice directors state has
targeted breakfast participation as one of their AFHK goals, this would be the
place to inquire about assistance with these types of expenses (Action for Healthy
Developing service systems and communication channels
are two additional hurdles to overcome when initiating a grab n
go service. The National Dairy Council and the School Food Service Foundation
joined forces in publishing a resource entitled Expanding Breakfast (2001).
This material delineates many helpful strategies and provides worksheets to
develop alternative service styles for breakfast, including grab n
go service. In addition to these resources, Table
2 lists issues to consider when developing a grab n go
project. With available materials and an increase in communities supporting
sound eating habits, a school foodservice director should find plenty of help
in starting this type of breakfast service.
|Table 2: Issues to Consider and Suggestions for
Implementing a Grab ‘n' Go Breakfast Service
|Issues to Consider
|Continuing payment system in remote
location. System to record paid, free, and
reduced-price meals must be maintained.
||Look for electricity in area for grab ‘n' go
service for cash registers needed to
maintain record system. Cost will depend
on presence and location of wiring, but may be less than $1000.
|Portable serving and milk carts.
||Investigate grants from state, local Dairy Council and/or local breakfast food and milk vendors.
||Work with custodial staff to determine
whether more or larger trashcans should be
purchased. Definitely plan on increased
use of trashcan liners and determine
whether this will be a school or foodservice
||Consider prepackaged items and weigh the
cost of food versus labor in this decision.
For “kick off” day consider the school
staff’s perception of food offered.
Teachers will be more supportive of a
breakfast that offers a bagel or muffin than a sweet roll even though calories and nutrients are equivalent. Perception is 99% of reality.
||The principal is the key person to join the
team. Talk to the principal about the role of
breakfast in helping students become better
prepared to learn and better able to
maintain sound eating patterns throughout
the day to help weight management.
|Teaching and custodial staff’s support
||Elicit support from these personnel in a session such as an administrative
council where key stakeholders are present.
Form alliances with key teachers with
influence on other teaching staff with
regards to this issue such as coaches, health or family and consumer sciences teachers.
|Data collection for evaluation
||Keep track of key indicators such as
participation rates and costs before
initiating the service and after. Share results with school administrators and school board.
Action for Healthy Kids. [Available online: http://www.actionforhealthykids.org/.]
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Conklin and Bordi are, respectively,
associate professor and assistant professor for the School of Hospitality Management
at Pennsylvania State University. Schaper is foodservice director at
the State College Area School District in State College, PA.