POWNAL >> Two schools in the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union were named winners in the Breakfast After the Bell Challenge, with Pownal Elementary School taking home the top prize.
The contest, funded by Hunger Free Vermont and the New England Dairy and Food Council, recognized schools that increased the percentage of students participate in in-school breakfast programs in the last year. Nine of the eleven participating schools increased the rate of students eating school breakfasts by at least 20 percent, but Pownal had the highest increase of any of them — 171 percent, with 85 percent of their students eating breakfast at school. Molly Stark Elementary School in Bennington saw similar results — a 132 percent increase, with 88 percent of their students now participating in the program.
"This year is the first year we've had breakfast in the classroom," said Pownal principal Todd Phillips, at a ceremony at the school on Friday, in which the school received a banner naming them as the champions of the challenge. The SVSU recently became eligible for and enrolled in the federal Community Eligibility Provision, a federal program that provides free breakfast and lunch to all students in areas that meet certain requirements having to do with poverty. Now instead of having breakfast be an optional pre-school activity, it takes place right after the start of the school day. Anore Horton, of Hunger Free Vermont, said that when students are given the choice between eating breakfast and playing with their friends before school, they will almost always choose their friends.
"Hunger Free Vermont is an organization that makes sure no one is going hungry, and all students in Vermont get the same opportunity to eat a healthy breakfast as you do here in Pownal," Horton said to the students.
Maureen O'Neil, regional director of the Abbey Group, which provides food services to the SU, said that in Pownal, the number of children being served breakfast on any given day increased from about 45 to almost 200. "It was new, so it was hard to get everyone on board," she said. Now, however, she says the program has become very successful, and she looks forward to seeing if it improves student achievement and health in the coming years.
Horton said that breakfast truly is the most important meal of the day, and that studies have shown eating at school leads to reduced nurse visits, fewer tardies and absences, higher test scores, fewer behavioral references, a lower risk of obesity, and increased focus. She said that while 95 percent of schools in the state offer some form of breakfast, only 25 percent of students take advantage of those programs.
Friday also marked Pownal's Relay Recess event, in which students raised $912 for the Relay for Life. Physical education teacher Brent Kipp said that this was the third year his students had participated in the program. Kindergartners ran a quarter mile, first and second graders a half mile, and third through sixth graders a full mile. Students received lollipops upon completion of their races. "It's for a good cause," he said.
Hunger Free Vermont and the New England Dairy and Food Council launches the challenge this January, and will run a second this fall. "The challenge shows that different strategies to move breakfast after the bell can work to increase participation," said Horton, "The most effective strategy at the elementary school level is to provide breakfast in the classroom, and make it universal, meaning that no student is charged for breakfast. That combination of strategies led to the high participation increase." To learn more about the Breakfast After the Bell Challenge, visit www.hungerfreevt.org/breakfast-after-the-bell-challenge. (As of Friday afternoon, the Hunger Free Vermont website is under construction, but is expected to be back up shortly.)
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.