FoodCorps member Ailish Dennigan is a 2016 recipient of Share Our Strength‘s Breakfast After the Bell grant. The grant provided funding and guidance to launch a breakfast cart pilot project at her service site, Brookside Elementary School in Norwalk, Connecticut. Over the course of just a few weeks, her school more than doubled breakfast participation. We spoke with Ailish about how she made it happen.
FoodCorps: Tell me about how you came to FoodCorps.
Ailish Dennigan: I majored in Public Health in college and was taking a class on place and health, which had a focus on health equity. I wrote a paper on built environments and their connection to health, and one piece of it was school gardens. FoodCorps came up in my Google search for that, and I ended up volunteering with some service members in North Carolina. I applied to be a service member and didn’t get it, so I farmed for a season in Montana, then moved to Connecticut to work at a local health food store. I grew up in Connecticut and Massachusetts, and was born in Norwalk, which is where I served, so it kind of came full circle. I was familiar with the area from living there for a year, and the second time I applied I ended up at my FoodCorps service site, Norwalk Grows! I think FoodCorps has combined a lot of interests that I had in working with food and learning different levels of the food system. I catered in college and had some gardening experience and some farming experience, and FoodCorps combined that and added the element of food justice for me, which I hadn’t really touched upon in those other jobs.
FoodCorps: What are some of the challenges in food justice that Norwalk faces?
Ailish: There’s a big income gap in Connecticut, with a lot of wealth in sections of the coastline, which is what people may automatically think of when they think of Connecticut. But the opposite is true, too. There are gaps in wealth in the area, which creates a particular dynamic when it comes to perception versus reality of food access and food justice issues here.
One kindergarten teacher said she didn’t realize how many kids weren’t eating breakfast at home.
FoodCorps: What are some of the strengths of that area?
Ailish: I think a lot of people who live in Norwalk value its diversity. It’s a really well-resourced area and it’s very culturally and economically diverse. And what I’ve gotten, at least from a health perspective, is that there are so many different types of professionals—in the schools, hospitals, local non-profits, businesses, farms and museums—really working toward improving the health of children. In general, everyone’s working towards collectively improving the health of kids in Norwalk.
Ailish: It was a grant opportunity through Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign which is their initiative that focuses on childhood hunger. My supervisor at Norwalk Grows, Lisa, found the grant opportunity through FoodCorps. She put it on the table and we presented it to the principal at Brookside Elementary and to Food Services. I actually didn’t realize this at the time, but Food Services had emailed all of the principals, looking for interest in a Breakfast After the Bell program, and they hadn’t gotten any responses. Having that relationship with the principal was kind of an essential link—it was an aligned goal. So we wrote the proposal with input from various stakeholders at the school, and we got it!
FoodCorps: Walk me through what the project looks like.
Ailish: Prior to the pilot, we had a traditional breakfast model where kids could come before school and eat breakfast in the cafeteria, and there were about 50 kids doing that every morning. Then during the pilot, we had an average of 118 kids participate, so it was almost two and a half times increase in participation. Kids could grab their breakfast from the grab n’ go cart and then eat in the classroom, so it lengthened the amount of time that kids had the opportunity to eat, instead of rushing straight to class.
One kindergarten teacher said she didn’t realize how many kids weren’t eating breakfast at home. The most academically-heavy part of class, like when kids learn to read, happened in the morning; so if they hadn’t eaten since dinner the night before, and they weren’t going to eat until lunch, they weren’t fueled nutritionally for the most academic portion of their day.
In the short-term, the collaboration gave me the opportunity to meet a lot of people—or just build and deepen—relationships. But I think collaboration was really important also for the sustainability of the program.
FoodCorps: Who did you collaborate with on this project? And why do you think collaboration was important in the construction and implementation of the project?
Ailish: Yeah, I think collaboration piece was the most exciting part for me as a service member because it was supported by this community that I’d been building throughout the year. There is a lot of buy-in from the principal, Sandra, who was the main communicator with the school community, and she left time in staff meetings to let teachers know that the breakfast program was happening in their classrooms. I think she pitched it effectively, and if it was just kind of like thrown at teachers, I don’t know if they would’ve been so patient or flexible during the pilot
The vice-principal and the librarian coordinated administering a pre-survey, and the food service staff offered their expertise, training the people running the cart and transporting the meals. Norwalk Grows—my host organization—was also a big collaborator and supporter in making the survey and helping to structure the morning schedule.
And the students were a part of the process—we had a fifth grade Breakfast Brigade, where the students would go around and collect the trash. It was a privilege for them to have a responsibility and to leave class. In addition to wanting to include the students, this was in response to a concern that teachers’ had about mess in their classrooms, so the trash wouldn’t sit there all day, and it didn’t make too much extra work for our custodial staff.
Hector the Custodian was great! He was always there and giving feedback on supplies and sustainability of supplies. He didn’t want to keep asking me for trash bags every time we ran out in the future. At Central Office, Karen was someone who I hadn’t met yet, and she did all the purchasing, that was a huge task that was thrown at her.
In the short-term, the collaboration gave me the opportunity to meet a lot of people—or just build and deepen—relationships. But I think collaboration was really important also for the sustainability of the program. Even though I’m leaving, it’s continuing and expanding for this year, which wouldn’t have happened if there weren’t so many people with buy-in involved with the project.
FoodCorps has definitely given me a lens of having more patience and understanding for where people are coming from. Everyone has their own story and priorities and being a FoodCorps service member gave me the liberty to explore those stories with different collaborators. I think in terms of the actual project, I was able to offer support as a FoodCorps service member as a connector between people with differing priorities that maybe wouldn’t have been available otherwise.
The district was very receptive to the model, and they recently secured a large grant that will help to expand the model to the entire district within the school year.
FoodCorps: So what are some of the changes that you observed as part of this pilot?
Ailish: Well, the overall increase in participation was a big one, and creating more of a breakfast culture at the school. Whether or not a student was getting breakfast, they would see the breakfast cart right when walking in as a parent or a student, and there are extra people greeting them as they start their day. We also had the food service staff greeting all the children—not just the ones getting breakfast—they’re not tucked away in the cafeteria. The district was very receptive to the model, and they recently secured a large grant that will help to expand the model to the entire district within the school year. Being a part of the instigating team was a really rewarding piece of my service, and I’m proud of the district for taking on such an impressive expansion!