Cafeteria Workers

Our School's Free Breakfast Program Wasn't Working Until Ms. Cook Noticed This One Thing

At Lincoln Heights Middle School (LHMS), we had all the right ingredients to make sure all students had a healthy start to the school day. In our school district, all students receive free breakfasts. We had the facilities, the food and the funding.  

Despite being given the opportunity, only 160 out of 600 students at LHMS were eating breakfast. There was obviously a missing ingredient. As it turned out, all we needed was Michelle Cook, our cafeteria manager, and her compassion for all students.

As a school team, we made many assumptions about why kids weren’t eating. Maybe it was the food options. Or, maybe they were eating at home and weren’t hungry. As it turned out, the real reason was because of students’ desire to socialize. Kids who were eating breakfast had to go sit in the cafeteria in the order in which they entered to have their meal. But kids who chose not to eat breakfast got to go to the gym and freely socialize with students in their grade levels.

Realizing that kids were choosing socializing over eating was a light bulb moment. So, Mrs. Cook and a team of faculty, staff, and students set out to implement a Breaking After the Bell program with the help of No Kid Hungry.


Working hard to create a future without childhood hunger and working tirelessly to connect kids with the food they need to reach their dreams and fulfill their potential was a passion for Mrs. Cook and her staff.  She knew that having a healthy breakfast would increase students’ ability to learn. She believed in kids, and she believed in the importance of starting their day off right.

Believing in Someone is a Powerful Gift

Belief though must be followed by action, and in this case, that means meeting students most basic needs—food. It’s also important that all adults in the school building see something in these students that they don't see in themselves. By implementing Grab N Go breakfast, students could see that the adults in the building understood their need to hang out with friends by offering them a way to eat and maintain their social time.

When a school bus would arrive late, by no fault of student riders, Mrs. Cook and her staff were making sure they had something to eat, not reminding them of their tardiness. She also provides front office staff with some Grab N Go bags for students who are brought to school late. Asking students, “Have you eaten this morning?” sends a much different message than, “Why are you late?”

Mrs. Cook never ceases to amaze me with her energy and can do it attitude. Under her direction, cafeteria workers greet every student by name as they come through the morning breakfast line. These relationships between students and school staff will always be the foundation of successful school experiences.

This work is more than a job, it is a moral imperative for Mrs. Cook. Her leadership in implementing Breakfast After the Bell has truly impacted the lives of our students at LHMS. As kids gathered together to eat in the mornings, there began to be a positive shift in unified classrooms and overall school culture. There were now no divisions between those who were eating and those who weren’t.

We aim to do our part to make sure every student at LHMS has a nutritious meal to start the day. We hope to provide a sense of consistency and a sense of security for our students.

In the end, our goal, as both educators and educational support professionals is success for every student. It’s not only the teaching staff goal, but the support staff goal as well. Mrs. Cook is an important part in making this goal come to fruition.  

In order to accomplish this goal, [pullquote position="left"]we need to support programming that gives students access and options. Sometimes this means going outside our adult “box” and trying new and innovative changes like Breakfast After the Bell. Mrs. Cook is willing to do that if it means setting students up for success.  

This month, commit to sitting down with your school stakeholders to discuss how to make Breakfast After the Bell a reality. If you would like more information on how to implement a Breakfast After the Bell program in your school and become an advocate for your students, visit No Kid Hungry and the NEA Foundation or contact fellows@strength.org.

Under Mrs. Cook’s leadership, no kid goes hungry under our watch.

Photo courtesy of the author.
Derek Voiles is the 2017 Tennessee Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year.

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