It's not just OK for students to eat on the run when they arrive at a middle school here each morning. It's encouraged. The program makes it easier for kids squeezed for time to squeeze in breakfast. And it removes the stigma that if you eat breakfast in the school cafeteria, you must be poor.
For about 20 minutes before homeroom, a "grab-and-go" food cart is parked near the principal's office. Students can grab a bagel, muffin, cold cereal and fresh fruit, throw them into a paper bag, and take them back to their desks.
Sixth-grader Tesia Chuderewicz, 12, loves the convenience. She regularly ate breakfast at home when she was in elementary school, but has less time now because her day at Mount Nittany Middle School starts about an hour earlier. She was one of 117 students — out of an estimated 860 — served on a recent morning.
"I like it because you don't have to get up as early at home ... and you don't have to worry about making it at home," Tesia said as she made her way to her locker, clutching a bag containing a Pop Tart, an apple and milk.
Teachers have supported the program, despite initial worries about trash in the classrooms.
School nutrition experts say grab-and-go breakfast is becoming a popular alternative to the cafeteria, though they did not have figures on how many schools around the country have similar programs. Mount Nittany has served breakfast this way since 2002.
By presenting the morning meal in a new way, schools can help dispel a commonly held but incorrect perception among students: that school breakfasts — which, like school lunch programs, are subsidized by the federal government — serve needy children only.
"School breakfast definitely suffers from an image problem," said Nicole Woo, senior policy analyst for the Food Research and Action Center (search) in Washington, D.C. "We've heard in focus groups from low-income moms who say that their children don't want to be seen in the cafeteria in the morning, that they'd rather go hungry."
At Mount Nittany, which no longer serves breakfast in its cafeteria, a complete meal from the food service cart costs $1.50 for students who pay full price and 30 cents for low-income students, and is free for the poorest children. Debit cards are used in place of cash.
Since Mount Nittany opened in 1995, administrators had been concerned that breakfast participation was hurt by the building's layout and a policy confining meals to the cafeteria, said Megan Schaper, the district's food service director.
Even students who wanted breakfast were staying away because friends uninterested in buying a school meal weren't allowed to go to the cafeteria with them, Schaper said.
The school did a six-week trial of the food cart program in spring 2002 with encouragement from researchers at nearby Penn State University, who wanted to study whether a "grab-and-go" program would help boost overall school breakfast consumption. Out of more than 890 students enrolled at Mount Nittany at the time, only 4 percent, or about 35, ate breakfast before the program. One recent day, the share of kids eating breakfast was 13 percent.
During the test run, participation by students paying full price showed the greatest increase, climbing from seven to 47 students a day, according to the Penn State study.
"The truth of the matter is that it's not a question of money," said Martha Conklin, a Penn State hospitality management expert who was involved in the study. "Many times, it's a question of time. Kids have to get up early to get the bus."