Students at St. Monica School in South Philadelphia recently celebrated the importance of starting the day with a balanced meal, a practice that has been demonstrated to improve both academic performance and behavior.

Over chocolate milk, fruit and cereal bars, more than 80 kids completed puzzles and worksheets that highlighted healthy eating.

The activities were part of National School Breakfast Week, an annual campaign created by nutritionists to promote the federal School Breakfast Program.


The theme of this year’s observance, which ran from March 5 to 9, was “I Heart School Breakfast,” and students appeared to share that sentiment as they polished off their meals before class.

“The kids run, not walk, when we open the door,” said Elena Soutou, an assistant meal coordinator at St. Monica.

On an average weekday at the school, between 80 and 90 students receive free breakfasts through the program, which is administered by Nutritional Development Services (NDS), a food assistance agency within the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s Catholic Human Services division.

NDS has partnered with the School Breakfast Program since 1971, shortly after the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched the initiative. Within two years, NDS was serving 1 million lunches and 400,000 breakfasts per year at 35 schools. NDS now manages breakfast for 92 schools throughout the five-county Philadelphia region, feeding almost 9,000 students each weekday.

Brooke Mullen of the archdiocese’s Nutrition Development Services discusses the importance of a balanced breakfast with children at St. Monica School on March 9. (Gina Christian)

Between its breakfast outreach and its lunch program, which offers an additional 18,000 meals per day, NDS serves approximately 4 million meals each year to area children, according to Brooke Mullen, the agency’s assistant director of community relations.

Federal funds cover all costs for the meals, as well as staffing and equipment, which made the program an ideal fit for St. Monica.

“Absolutely no money is required from the school,” said principal Sister Regina Matulka, I.H.M. “They even provided the ovens and refrigerator, and they pay for the maintenance and a percentage of the electricity.”

As part of the federal program’s “universal breakfast” model, NDS is able to serve free meals to students regardless of their household income.

“We want to ensure all possible barriers are removed so that we can reach as many children as possible,” said Mullen. NDS also partners with approximately 450 to 500 sites to continue feeding area kids during the summer months.

And while many Americans start the morning with donuts or fried foods, NDS rigorously implements the strict nutritional guidelines set by the USDA for the breakfast program.

Meals must meet one-quarter of the students’ daily nutritional needs while including fruit, grains and milk that total between 350 and 600 calories. Servings must contain zero grams of trans fat and less than 10 percent of saturated fat. The meals are available either as heated entrees or as “grab and go” packages.

In addition to encouraging healthy eating habits, the school meal plan gives staff a chance to monitor the well-being of their students.

(Watch a video of a recent breakfast at St. Monica School:)

“We are like family here,” said Soutou, whose daughter attends St. Monica School. “We talk to the kids, and they tell us what they’re experiencing — ‘My mom feels sick,’ or ‘My dad is getting remarried.’ We let them know that we’re here if they need any help.”

The program also makes mornings less hectic for busy parents.

“With the program, parents can get their children off to school without having to first get breakfast ready,” said Sister Matulka. “It really helps their time management.”

Joey L., a second-grade student at St. Monica, said that he particularly enjoyed the menu’s “Trix bars and chocolate milk,” as well as the blueberry muffins.

After a final slurp of his milk, Joey joined his classmates in watching a few cartoons before class.

“It’s a great start to their day,” said Soutou. “They enjoy it.”

St. Monica School principal Sister Regina Matulka, I.H.M., chats with students as they enjoy free daily breakfasts before class. The meals are part of a federally funded program managed locally by the archdiocese’s Nutritional Development Services. (Gina Christian)