As part of her dietetic internship, Hannah Overman worked with the Tukwila School District to increase the number of students who eat the free, school-provided breakfast. Through collaboration with the district's food service director, she put together a project that increased the number of middle school students who eat the school-provided breakfast by 20 percent. Contributed photos.

Dietetic intern works to increase consumption of school-provided breakfast

Breakfast is said to be the most important meal of the day, even more so for students to help them stay alert in their classes. One of Iowa State’s dietetic interns recently had the chance to help a school district improve the effectiveness its breakfast program.

Hannah Overman, a student in Iowa State’s Dietetic Internship Program, spent several weeks working with the Tukwila School District in Tukwila, Wash., to increase the number of students who eat breakfast the school provides. Thanks to grants from the local United Way King County and the school district, free breakfast is provided to all students in the district.

Though the breakfast is free, the school district felt not enough students were taking advantage of it. Overman worked with her preceptor, Craig Huckins, director of food services for the Tukwila School District, to come up with a project to hopefully increase breakfast participation.

Prior to working out the details of the project, Huckins noticed breakfast participation increased during testing week. This was because an increased number of teachers were encouraging their students to eat breakfast in order to help the students perform well on the tests. If students perform better on the tests, the teachers benefit by having higher performance reviews and a better chance at receiving funding.

“This connection suggested that teachers know the benefit in eating breakfast but are not always enforcing it,” Overman said. “With this promotion, we decided to try and incentivize the teachers to see if we can increase numbers independent of testing week.”

Under Huckins’ guidance, Overman put together a three-day project to increase breakfast participation at the district’s Showalter Middle School, attended by sixth through eighth grade students. Called the Viking Victory Breakfast Challenge, teachers were asked to not only encourage their students to eat breakfast, but to eat breakfast at the school with the students over the course of the three-day study.

The teachers received raffle tickets based on how many students in their homeroom class ate a school breakfast during those three days. The raffle tickets were drawn for prizes donated by the local United Way and businesses in the community.

“The teachers’ incentive promotion is one that I had been formulating in my mind for quite some time but had not had the resources or time to fully commit to doing on my own,” Huckins said. “Hannah showed up motivated, open-minded and eager to take on this significant challenge with me and ran with it.”

Another aspect of the project included teaching students basic nutrition information centered on MyPlate. Each day, all 35 homeroom classes at the middle school participated in a Google Forum nutrition education session Overman designed. The first day’s lesson was about the components of MyPlate. During the second day, the students learned about Nutrisource, an online tool that posts nutrition facts about the foods served in the school’s cafeteria. The final day had students using MyPlate to categorize their breakfast.

To keep track of the results of the study, Overman designed an analysis tool to keep track of which students ate breakfast and the homeroom class to which each of those students belonged. With this information, teachers received daily updates of how many of their students were eating breakfast at the school.

“This tool provided us significant information on what homeroom classes had improvement throughout the promotion and what type of students were participating,” Overman said.

A “snapshot” taken prior to the start of the project showed approximately 48 percent of students at the middle school ate a school-provided breakfast. By the third and final day of the project, that number had increased to nearly 70 percent.

“We did not expect to see such a high response, but it provided us with some useful data to increase breakfast/lunch participation in the future,” Overman said.

At the end of the project, all homeroom classes with 60 percent or higher breakfast participation received coupons to redeem for ice cream sundaes during lunch. Thirty of the 35 homeroom classes at the school achieved this goal.

“I could not be happier with the results and the talent, effort and commitment Hannah brought forth to help facilitate what turned out to be a very successful promotion that was fun for both our students and teachers,” Huckins said. “The really good news is that it appears the increase in participation we experienced during the incentive program has been sustainable, as we are still averaging an extra 50 kids per day than we were before.”

Erin Bergquist, senior clinician for Iowa State University’s Dietetics Internship program, is proud of the “excellent creativity and critical thinking skills” Overman showed during the school nutrition rotation portion of her dietetics internship.

“She’s an excellent team player and comes to the internship with a wealth of experience, but a humble demeanor and a true willingness to learn,” Bergquist said.

Overman said she gained an immense amount of knowledge about school food service through interning at the Tukwila School District.

“I was blessed to find a preceptor who was willing to dedicate significant time and energy instructing me on the ins and outs of bureaucracy, barriers to school food service, barriers specific to the students who attend Tukwila schools and how to manage a food service department,” she said.

While Overman is unsure what she wants to do following completion of the dietetic internship later this year, she said she’d like to focus on food insecurity and malnutrition.