Before Bell Middle School in Golden started its breakfast program last year, kids would often come to the cafeteria and beg Kitchen Manager Annette Hansen for a bag of chips or another snack before school. Other school staff got similar requests and some started buying granola bars to hand out to hungry students.

Students at Burlington Elementary deliver breakfast for kindergarteners and first-graders. (Photo credit: Burlington Elementary Principal Debbie James)

Hansen says she doesn’t get these requests anymore, thanks to the school’s award-winning breakfast program, which serves about 60 students each morning starting at 7 a.m.

About half of those students come from low-income families.

Bell is one of three Colorado schools that won an “Innovation Award” last month in the School Breakfast Challenge. The contest, now in its second year, is put on by the No Kid Hungry Campaign, a collaboration between Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office, Hunger Free Colorado and Share Our Strength.

Stukey Elementary in Westminster and Northridge High School in Greeley also won Innovation Awards for their efforts in 2011-12. All three schools earned $1,000 awards in the contest.

In addition, four school districts won Breakfast Challenge awards ranging from $3,000 to $5,000 for big gains in breakfast participation between April 2010 and April 2011. West Grand and Ridgway won among districts with fewer than 40 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Wray and Burlington won among districts with 40 percent or more of students eligible for free and reduced price lunch.

Schools and districts around the state are now competing in the second School Breakfast Challenge, which runs until the end of January.  The contest is part of an effort to increase the number of students, particularly low-income students, who eat breakfast at school.

According to Hunger Free Colorado, for every 100 children who ate a free or reduced-price lunch in 2010-2011, only 40 ate school breakfast. In addition, although school breakfast participation has increased somewhat since 2008-2009, Colorado still ranks 44 among all states when comparing the number of school breakfasts per school lunches served.

Breakfast at Bell

On a recent Monday morning, Bell Middle eighth-grader Jalen Lucero stopped to chat on his way out of the cafeteria after breakfast. He said he likes the breakfast food at Bell much more than at his elementary school. He also likes Hansen, who brought in her home stereo system to liven up the cafeteria atmosphere.

“She’s funny. She dances all the time…Me and Mrs. Hansen are buddies,” Jalen said.

Bell’s breakfast program began as a project of the school’s Interact Club, which is a youth affiliate of the Golden Rotary Club.

Students eating breakfast in the Bell Middle School cafeteria.

Bell Principal Bridget Jones said of the Interact students, “They wanted to help make our school a thriving place and they knew some kids were not eating breakfast.”

About 35 percent of Bell’s 511 students receive free or reduced-price lunches this year, up from 17 percent six years ago.

The logistics were intimidating.

Students arrived on 13 buses every morning. There were concerns about how to accommodate students on late buses, who would provide before-school supervision and even where students would enter the building so they could access the cafeteria. Jones had her doubts, but said students and staff worked to overcome all the obstacles.

The Golden Rotary Club donated $500 for the kick-off breakfast, which was free for all students. Normally, students who are not eligible for free or reduced-price lunch pay $1.75 to eat breakfast at school.

Eighth-graders Ryan Houle and Leo Garcia shared their thoughts about the breakfast program over egg sandwiches and chocolate milk as the sounds of pop music drifted in from Hansen’s kitchen stereo. Houle said the program gives him a chance to eat if he doesn’t have enough time for it at home.

Leo Garcia, who’d just arrived after walking the 15 minutes from home in 12-degree weather, said he likes the warmth of the cafeteria. He also recalled feeling “pretty tired” when he neglected to eat breakfast last year as a seventh-grader. Without breakfast, Houle said, “It feels like you’re empty…You keep on thinking about how you’re hungry.”

The Burlington experience

Hunger was also evident at Burlington Elementary School before the school leadership team kicked off a program incorporating breakfast in the classroom and fitness activities last school year.

“We felt like we had lots of kids that were complaining about their tummies hurting or being lethargic in the morning,” said Principal Debbie James.

With leadership from the school’s physical education teacher, Burlington Elementary applied for and received a $2,230 grant plus nearly $1,800 worth of in-kind donations from Fuel Up to Play 60, a collaboration of the National Dairy Association, the NFL and the United States Department of Agriculture.

Armed with a new milk cooler, insulated bags and some red wagons to help the youngest students transport the food to their classrooms, Burlington began its universal free breakfast program last January. Soon, 87 percent of the 280 K-4 students were eating breakfast as soon as they got to school. James said the school had implemented a before-school breakfast program seven or eight years ago, but participation was low. At Burlington, 64 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches.

Teachers have noticed a difference since the breakfast program began, said James. Besides a reduction in obviously hungry kids, the number of tardy students has decreased. In addition, for those who are still tardy, the number of minutes they are late has decreased.

Parents and students have an incentive to arrive on time or close to it, said James, since breakfast in the classroom ends at 8:30 a.m., 30 minutes after classes begin.

Now, students show up to eat ready to learn.