March 21, 2014 • By David Erickson
DARBY – Third-grader Cullen Duggan didn’t seem fazed when actor Jeff Bridges and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock sat down next to him for breakfast on Friday morning.
The two men were at Darby Elementary raising awareness for the “No Kid Hungry” campaign, which promotes healthy breakfasts in school classrooms as a way to boost attendance and grades. Bridges, famous for his roles in movies like “The Big Lebowski” and “True Grit,” is the campaign’s national spokesman.
Calmly spreading jam on his toast, Duggan told his audience, and the hoard of media aiming cameras behind them, that he liked art.
“Hey, I like art too,” Bridges exclaimed, spinning around in his miniature chair. “Let’s get a piece of paper and a pencil.”
The two then collaborated on an outline of a penguin, which Duggan got the actor to autograph.
“That was really cool,” Duggan said later with a grin, finally betraying his excitement.
The Darby School District won an award from the governor’s wife, Lisa Bullock, this past January for its innovative school breakfast program, which serves 246 students each morning. The children eat the meal right at their desks after the first bell rings.
Many studies have shown that children are much more likely to take advantage of free meals when it is served at their desk rather than in a cafeteria before school. Indeed, Darby Superintendent Loyd Rennaker saw a huge spike in participation when the food was served by teachers in individual classrooms.
On Friday, Gov. Bullock, his wife and Bridges sat down with the kids in third-grade teacher Kerrie Holmes’ classroom to eat a “mountain man breakfast” prepared by food services director Thong Robbins, whose first name is pronounced “Tong.”
“Serving breakfast after the bell gets rid of the stigma,” Bullock said. “When every child has the opportunity to have a little breakfast as they’re preparing for the day, it’s minimal intrusion in the actual classroom and it sets all the kids off on the right foot.”
Bill Shore, CEO and founder of Share Our Strength, the national nonprofit that is sponsoring the breakfast campaign, said his company’s research shows that math scores are 17 percent higher and attendance rates are two days longer, on average, when kids eat a healthy breakfast.
“One out of every five kids in Montana come to school and there are food insecurity issues,” Bullock explained later. “We are in Darby today because Darby is showing the state of Montana and our country how it’s done. We just had the opportunity to have a great breakfast after the bell.
“It was served in the classroom with kids that we know, when they get a good breakfast, they are going to be much more attentive in school. Their math scores are actually higher and teachers across the country say at the end of the day that this actually impacts overall success rates.”
Shore said that he and Bridges chose to highlight a small, semi-rural district like Darby because of how successful the program has been there.
“We really see what’s happening here as a model for other schools in all 50 states around the country,” Shore said.
In Montana, school breakfast programs reach 45 percent of kids who are eligible, and Shore said his goal is to get that number to 70 percent in the next year.
“To come here to Darby and see the success that this school’s had, last year only 30 percent of the kids were participating in the program, and now it’s 76 percent,” Bridges added. “My gosh, what a great example for the rest of the state and the country.”
Bullock said that if the program can work in Darby, he is confident that it will work in “every corner of the state.” He noted that there are federal funds and other monies available for every district that wants it, so taxpayers don’t shoulder the burden.
“If you want to make sure you have an educated workforce, it starts with making sure our children are well-fed,” Lisa Bullock added. “It’s a critical foundation we need to provide for our children.”
The group raved about Robbins’ homemade salsa, and they all took home several containers.
“There are so many ways to address breakfast after the bell,” Bridges said. “The school here is doing it in such a creative way. There is a wonderful lady that I just met, Thong Robbins, who is cooking all these breakfasts that are so delicious. You can see the joy in the kids’ faces. They really love it. And that salsa, that was pretty good.”
Bridges said that Darby is inspiring for all other small school districts in the country. He also pointed out how creativity is tied to a full stomach.
“When you’re hungry, it’s hard to get your creative ideas going,” he said. “If you are fed, especially in the morning, you’re ready to learn and create. That mountain man breakfast made me draw a better penguin.”