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Helping Rhode Island Students Fuel Up to Succeed with Breakfast

Posted by Brooke Hardison, USDA Office of Communications in Food and Nutrition Initiatives
Nov 13, 2014
Louis Escobar, Rhode Island Dairy Farmer and President of Rhody Fresh Milk, speaking to students at Ferri Middle School in Johnston.
Louis Escobar, Rhode Island Dairy Farmer and President of Rhody Fresh Milk, speaking to students at Ferri Middle School in Johnston.

The following guest blog is part of our Cafeteria Stories series, highlighting the efforts of hard working school nutrition professionals who are dedicated to making the healthy choice the easy choice at schools across the country.  We thank them for sharing their stories!

By Jane Q Vergnani, Nutrition Specialist for New England Dairy & Food Council

As a transplant Rhode Islander – or as my 4-year-old daughter says, “Little Rhody’er” – who has lived, gone to school and worked as a nutrition specialist for the New England Dairy & Food Council in the state for over seven years, I am passionate about helping students succeed.

Through my work with Fuel Up to Play 60, an in-school nutrition and physical activity program created by the National Dairy Council and the National Football League, in cooperation with the USDA, I have the opportunity to visit and work with many schools throughout Rhode Island.

Over the past several years, it is hard not to notice the impact the Great Recession has had on the population of Rhode Island. Between 2008-2012, 21 percent of children under the age of six lived below the poverty threshold.

According to Rhode Island KIDS COUNT, federal nutrition programs like the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs are essential to help fill the nutritional gaps for children living in food insecure homes. These students are at risk for falling behind their peers physically, academically, emotionally and socially.

The Rhode Island Department of Education is required to offer the School Breakfast Program in all of its schools, yet data from the department reveals that, during the 2012-2013 school year only 50 students who are eligible to receive free or reduced price meals participated in school breakfast for every 100 students who participated in school lunch.

There are several reasons why students may start their school day hungry. Mornings are busy and sometimes, even though breakfast is available at school, it can be difficult for students to have time to eat breakfast in the cafeteria and get to class on time.

When schools bring breakfast outside of the cafeteria to areas such as the front foyer and offer ‘Grab and Go’ style or to the classroom as part of a Breakfast in the Classroom program, many more students eat breakfast and are ready to learn.

On average, daily school breakfast participation can jump as much as 25 percent or more simply by making it more accessible to students. Elementary schools in Central Falls, Cranston and Providence have already implemented Breakfast in the Classroom programs and have seen their participation jump dramatically.

This year, more school districts from Woonsocket and Johnston to Foster-Glocester and Narragansett have made it a priority to ensure that their students are ready to learn each morning by implementing ‘Grab and Go’ style breakfast programs in their schools.

Who makes it happen in the school?  It could be an administrator, classroom teacher, or a school nurse who receives one too many visits from a hungry student or even the students themselves.  The key to making school breakfast a success is teamwork and removing the stigma that there is something wrong with eating breakfast at school.

The best programs that I have seen implemented in Rhode Island schools are those started by dedicated school wellness leaders working with a student team to create a school-wide effort.

School breakfast programs like the new ‘Grab and Go’ style offering at Nicolas A. Ferri Middle School in Johnston or at Narragansett Elementary School in Narragansett would not be possible without the support and Fuel Up to Play 60 funding from our dairy farmers of New England who are committed to the health and wellness of our youth.

Louis Escobar, Rhode Island Dairy Farmer and President of Rhody Fresh Milk, helped us kick off our “It’s Starts with School Breakfast” Fuel Up to Play 60 Rhode Island Campaign at Ferri last March to celebrate the new ‘Grab and Go’ style breakfast program by speaking with the students about the importance of eating breakfast.

The students loved listening to a REAL dairy farmer. When students can make the local farm-to-school connection and understand where healthy foods come from, they are more likely to eat them.

Dairy farmers from Ocean Breeze Farm in Westerly, Sylvia Panciera and her daughter, Britney, understand the importance of students making this connection and that hunger doesn’t end when school is out for the summer. That’s why they spoke to students and families at the Cranston Summer Meal kick-off in July at Gladstone Elementary School.

Curious to learn more about alternative school breakfast programs such as a Grab and Go, Breakfast in the Classroom or our other school wellness initiatives? Visit for more information, funding opportunities and resources.