Community in Action
Examples of programs, policies, and tools in action.

Toledo Launches Universal School Breakfast Program

March 11, 2014

In 2010, United Way of Greater Toledo (UWGT) wanted to know: “What are the health reasons keeping kids from thriving?” They asked parents, hospitals, schools, and other partners. 

Community members repeatedly told them hunger and food insecurity was hurting the health of Toledo’s children. Teachers said their kids were unable to focus – some reported giving their own food to their students. Though 76% of students qualified for free and reduced lunch and breakfast, many didn’t participate. Schools offered breakfast before class for a fee, but participation was low.

With community partners, UWGT began exploring how schools could provide every child breakfast for free. “Ultimately, a universal approach to school breakfast made the most sense because of the need,” explained Kate Sommerfeld, former manager of health at UWGT. “Universality also reduces stigma, especially for older kids,” added current manager of health Laura Roether.

However, some schools were concerned about the cost of an expanded breakfast program. UWGT and  partner Children’s Hunger Alliance (CHA) helped schools understand the importance of offering breakfast to all kids, and that the more kids ate, the more federal subsidies schools could draw. Schools were losing money through their food service; however, by serving more breakfasts, school meal programs could bring in more funds than they spent. Drawing from CHA’s implementation expertise, UWGT and CHA helped schools envision how universal breakfast programs could work and the roles school staff would play. 

Toledo piloted universal school breakfasts, and it worked. The pilot schools doubled the number of breakfasts they served. Community support mounted, schools took ownership of their programs, and school breakfast participation increased by 65% across the district. In 2013, Toledo made universal school breakfast a district-wide initiative. 

Now, administrators report tardiness and disciplinary incidents have decreased and meal participation has increased. Toledo public schools have also recouped $650,000 in federal funds. “Feedback has been exceptional from administrators and kids,” said Roether, “and the financial impact has been huge.”

Implementation isn’t seamless. Field trips have helped administrators see successful programs and improve their own. Now, instead of all serving breakfast before school, “schools can determine building by building how best to feed their children,” reported Charlie Kozlesky, CHA’s senior vice president of nutrition programs. 

Like many big initiatives, full implementation takes time. It takes coordination to help each school find the best breakfast delivery (grab & go carts, cafeteria breakfasts, etc.) and meal tracking system for them, and sometimes schools switch models midstream. But eventually, saif Roether, “it becomes institutionalized and runs like clockwork.” 

Roether advises flexibility, to let administrators find the right model for their school. She also considers buy-in from principals and teachers vital. Sommerfeld adds that buy-in from businesses and non-profits as well as schools is important, as is technical assistance from an expert partner. 

“No one organization is going to solve it,” Sommerfeld said. “Rallying around a common vision is critical. That’s what made us successful. We’re just one piece; it really takes an entire community.” 

To reach Laura Roether, email [email protected] or visit  

To reach Charlie Kozlesky, email [email protected] or visit 

Communities in Action provide examples of strategies or tools in action. Their purpose is to connect like-minded communities in their implementation efforts, giving insight into how others are tackling key challenges and what they've accomplished. To learn more about the evidence supporting this strategy's effectiveness or resources to help move towards implementation, see the What Works for Health summary of School breakfast programs.

Date added: March 26, 2014