An NEF Story

Start The Day

District 203 teachers see it every day.

Distraction. Difficulty focusing on the lesson. Behavior that disrupts the classroom. And eventually the teacher will send the student down to the office.

But instead of going to see the principal, the student steps through the door of the health office. And the nurse hears the question that she’s come to expect: “My stomach hurts. Can I have something to eat?”

Over the past decade, the number of people in the western suburbs who don’t have enough to eat has risen sharply, especially with the impact of the economic downturn in 2008. And for students who are trying to learn, an empty, growling stomach is a serious problem.

“If they don’t have breakfast for whatever reason, their attention is not where it should be,” says Jeanette Harris, Supervisor of Health Services for District 203. “Their behavior can be off, their attendance is affected. If you spoke to any one of the school nurses, they’re going to say that it’s an issue on a daily basis.”

But for the past six years, the Naperville Education Foundation (NEF) has made an impact on this growing issue of hungry students with their Breakfast Program — recently renamed the “Start the Day” program.

The situation first came to NEF’s attention seven years ago when a teacher at Beebe applied for a grant to feed the students in her classroom who were coming to school without breakfast. This particular grant wasn’t funded, but Debbie Shipley, a former school board member and current NEF Trustee, said “In reviewing the grant, we wanted to see what we could do to find out about the problem.”

They discovered that all the schools were having kids come down to the health offices complaining about feeling faint or having stomach aches, all of which were tied back to the fact that they weren’t having anything for breakfast. So the schools were handling it as best they could, with a nurse or assistant principal taking on the job of having something around to hand out to these students when they came down to the nurse. In many cases parents or Home & School would bring in donations.

NEF started by funding the Title 1 schools in District 203. Shipley had initially tried to bring food to the schools herself, buying granola bars from Loaves and Fishes, but quickly ran up against the issue of allergies, “so then it was more on the schools to get their own…Nutri-Grain bars are the only breakfast bar we found” not made in a facility with nuts.

They began giving money directly to the schools, putting it in their allied accounts for them to purchase snacks as they needed them, and eventually went from just Title 1 schools to all the elementary and junior high schools. NEF now puts $10,000 a year toward the “Start the Day” program. Shipley says “A lot of these schools spend more than what we give them,” adding that individual parents and staff still often supplement with their own donations.

District 203 doesn’t currently have the federal breakfast program in the schools, although Harris says they have considered it. But implementing any federal program comes with its own set of rules, regulations and expenses, and the beauty of NEF’s program is its simplicity and flexibility.

“We didn’t really put any criteria” on how the schools could use the food, Shipley says. It’s not always used at breakfast; often it’s a mid-day snack or brought out during the school’s Study Skills Academy. “And it’s not just for free and reduced students, it’s for anyone that might come to school hungry. It could be your child, my child.”

Jessica Jozwiak, NEF Trustee and Programs Committee chair, has experienced this first hand. One time her daughter went off to Kennedy without eating breakfast, and found herself feeling sick in the middle of class. “She went to the nurse and they gave her some food, so it really is for anyone.”

Harris agrees, saying it’s not always the at-risk kids who are coming in to the health office and that there are many reasons why students might skip a meal. “They don’t have time, or they weren’t hungry that morning, so…we offer it to everybody.” Proper nutrition affects behavior, tardiness, attention in the classroom and all of these things affect student achievement.

But ultimately it’s the at-risk population that is driving the need for this program in our district. With the numbers climbing of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, Jozwiak is excited that NEF is partnering with Loaves and Fishes to bring a bigger, better program to our kids. The Programs Committee is in the process of working out details with Harris to add fresh fruits and vegetables to the offerings, and will be piloting this new direction next year in two schools.

As all the research points to the benefit of students coming to school with a full stomach, ready to learn, NEF’s “Start the Day” program provides a vital safety net for District 203’s struggling families. Harris says, “We just want to make sure that if a student is hungry that we’re satisfying that need in order for them to succeed.”

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