Hallway cafeteria line gives teens a second chance at school breakfast

By Jill Palermo, Fauquier Times

On weekday mornings, time is tight for Prince William County high school students. With the school starting as early as 7:25 a.m., students typically find themselves rushing to get to class. Finding time to stop in the school cafeteria to grab breakfast is tough.

That’s what four Potomac High School seniors told Virginia’s First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe when she paid a visit to their eastern Prince William school to observe its “second-chance breakfast” line last Friday. As its name suggests, the program offers teens a second chance to eat breakfast between their first- and second-period classes, usually around 8:30 a.m.

To make it happen, school cafeteria workers set up a serving line in the school’s main hallway, allowing students to pick up pre-packaged, “grab-and-go” breakfast items on their way to class. McAuliffe joined the second-chance serving line Sept. 29 to serve students breakfast wraps, banana bread and apple sauce.

During a roundtable discussion afterward, McAuliffe said she was impressed by the students’ good manners and how quickly they moved through the line. “That was fast!” she noted.

The goal of second-chance breakfast is to make it as convenient as possible for hungry students to eat a nutritious breakfast, and it’s working, said Potomac High School Principal Michael Wright.

Since Potomac High first piloted the second-chance breakfast line last year, the number of breakfast meals served at school each day jumped from 400 to nearly 800, Wright told McAuliffe and other school division officials gathered in the school’s library.

The second-chance breakfast line required a few changes in logistics, but the new routine has paid off, Wright said, because students who eat breakfast seem more alert and more engaged in class.

“It has had a great impact on our students,” Wright said.

The second-chance breakfast program is up and running in all 11 Prince William County high schools for the first time this fall, said Adam Russo, director of School Food and Nutrition Services.

The addition is an expansion of the “grab-and-go” routine already in place at all 96 Prince William schools, including all middle and elementary schools. While students still fetch the grab-and-go items the school cafeteria – not from school hallways – the goal is the same: to make it easier for students to eat breakfast by allowing them to bring food to their classrooms, Russo said.

“They can sit and eat after the class begins, and it’s just business as usual,” Russo said in an interview after the discussion. “[Students] sit down, the teacher teaches. They eat, they tidy up after themselves and nobody pays any attention to it. It’s just normal, which is awesome.”

“The more normal breakfast is, the more likely everyone is going to take [breakfast],” Russo added. “With buy-in comes success.”

Middle school teacher Riley O’Casey, who participated in the roundtable as president of the Prince William Education Association, said she made a habit of eating breakfast with her students at the start of her first-period class. The routine, she said, allowed her students a few minutes to relax and socialize before digging into their studies for the day.

“They were better able to focus,” O’Casey said of her students. “They weren’t sleepy and they were more willing to do the things I wanted them to do.”

Still, there are challenges. Across both Virginia and the entire U.S, only a fraction of kids who eat lunch at school also eat breakfast there. In Prince William County, schools typically serve about 55,000 lunch meals each day but only 21,000 breakfasts, according to the school division’s office of communication services.

Among Prince William kids who are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals, only 34.1 percent participate in school breakfasts, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data compiled on the “Feed VA Day of Action” website.

McAuliffe’s visit to Potomac High School coincided with the Feed VA Day of Action event. Across the commonwealth, more than 1,000 schools provided free breakfast to students on Sept. 29 in connection with the day of action, including all Prince William County schools.

McAuliffe said she hoped to hear from Potomac High students firsthand about why they think many kids are still not eating breakfast at school. The four seniors said time – or the lack thereof – is still the biggest challenge.

“I drive myself to school, so I get here right before the bell rings,” said senior Maggie Kaysak. “But when I do get here, I don’t have time to go and wait in the cafeteria because the lines usually are very long.”

Kaysak said she has jumped in the second-chance breakfast line, “but sometimes I can’t get in line fast enough if my class is a long walk away,” she added. “I don’t have time to get to [the breakfast line] and still get to my classes.”

When McAuliffe asked Kaysak if her teachers allow her to arrive a few minutes late if they know she stopped at the second-chance breakfast line, Kaysak said she hasn’t tried it.

“If I find I have only a minute to get to class, I hop out of line because I don’t want to risk getting into trouble,” Kaysak said.

McAuliffe, a mom of five, said she understood such challenges and noted that schools need to keep working to overcome them. Superintendent Steven Walts said Prince William’s high schools are looking at setting up more than one second-chance line in some schools and, in general, are trying to promote breakfast as much as possible.

“We will continue to look for ways to enhance the attractiveness and magnetism of the food we serve,” he added. “We’ll continue to strive to make it as good as it can be.”

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