Student interest in a healthy breakfast has soared at four Wheeling Township Elementary District 21 schools under a new program providing the first meal of the day in their classrooms.
District 21 officials, Democratic U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider and others gathered Thursday at Mark Twain Elementary School in Wheeling to celebrate the early success of Breakfast After the Bell.
The initiative stems from a state law requiring a healthy breakfast be served in classrooms after the day starts at schools with a minimum 70 percent of students qualifying for free meals through a federally funded child nutrition program.
Children at Twain and three other Wheeling schools -- Whitman Elementary, Holmes Middle and Field Elementary -- previously had to arrive early to receive breakfast in a cafeteria. About 10 percent to 15 percent of eligible students participated, according to District 21.
But with Breakfast After the Bell, 143,134 meals were served as of December, representing a 200 percent increase over last year, officials said. About 70 percent of qualifying students are participating in the program since it began in October.
Twain Principal Rita Janus said it's been exciting to see the children quickly embrace Breakfast After the Bell. She cited research showing students who eat breakfast have improved memory and attention in the classroom.
"It's also a time of day where they can socialize with each other and work on those social communication skills and enjoy kind of a family feel in their classroom," Janus said.
Schneider said another benefit of the classroom model is children receiving the free breakfast no longer are eating early in one location where everyone can see them.
"Kids pay attention to these things," Schneider said. "Kids use labels to describe programs and others who participate in these programs. There should be no stigma associated with getting your day off to a good start."
Twain food-service workers Wednesday morning packed coolers with whole-grain bagels, light cream cheese, fresh orange wedges, pure strawberry-kiwi juice and milk. Students or teachers then brought the coolers into their classrooms after getting them in a central hallway location.
Fourth-graders in Jillian Dorn's classroom were called in small groups to receive the food. She said sees the benefits of Breakfast After the Bell.
"They're not worried about eating in the morning," Dorn said. "They're not worried about bringing a snack. Some of them will save their fruit because we do snack time at about 10 o'clock."
District 21 is receiving assistance for Breakfast After the Bell from the Illinois Hunger Coalition and other organizations.
Hunger coalition Executive Director Diane Doherty said Twain has "really seized the moment" with the classroom breakfast initiative. She said an estimated 583,000 Illinois children experience hunger or food insecurity.
"Certainly, one thing we can do is to make sure that kids can come to school every day and have breakfast and have lunch," Doherty said.