SUNSET — Mornings should begin with a healthy breakfast. Nutritionists have been hammering that message for decades, but teachers still find that a significant number of students don't eat before school. And Sunset Elementary has taken matters into its own hands.
Pam Tsakalos, director of nutrition services in Davis School District, said that after Sunset teachers conducted class surveys they found that around half of the children show up in the morning with empty bellies.
Starting Monday the district's nutrition services launched a pilot program where every student has the chance to grab some grub during the first 10 minutes of school. It will be used to identify the differences a healthy breakfast makes for its K-6 population.
About 80 percent of students at Sunset, a Title I school, are eligible for free lunch and breakfast. But for the remainder of the year, during the study, the school will foot the bill for all the students.
Principal Don Beatty said certain learning centers in the brain and brain activity are heavily dependent on nutrition. Children who come to school with no breakfast often have problems with concentration and behavior.
Beatty admitted the breakfasts will take minutes out of already overtaxed instructional time. "But if those 10 minutes provide three hours of good learning time, then it's a worthy trade-off."
This isn't the first move Sunset has made to use nutrition to students' advantage. Two years ago they switched around lunch time. Instead of lunch first and recess last, students play first and then come in and take 20 minutes to eat.
Beatty said in the past children would be so excited to go to recess they would come in, eat two bites and then sprint to the playground. Some had a soft drink for breakfast — or worse, no breakfast — and only a couple of bites at lunch. But since the flip Beatty said students have doubled their food intake, cutting in half the amount of trash thrown out.
"All students have certain barriers to learning, and anything a school can do to reduce those barriers helps us do a better job of teaching," said Beatty.
Tsakalos said studies have shown that children who eat a healthy breakfast have scored significantly higher on standardized tests and also have lower absence and tardiness rates.
Those will be some of the key things Sunset will be looking for, along with behavioral improvements, "less outbursts" and better concentration.
"Statistically it would be inaccurate to say, 'these test scores went up because the students ate breakfast,' but with that combined with other things — it is probably going to make a positive difference," said Beatty.
Nonetheless, teacher Emily Tanner said that she has already seen marked improvements in multiple areas. On the first breakfast day she said that they "buzzed though" the morning math lessons faster than they ever have before. Moreover, she didn't see the usual pre-lunch restlessness.
"Around that time (lunch) I usually hear 'my tummy hurts, I have a headache, I am starving,' but I haven't heard that at all," said Tanner.