At the beginning of the 2019 school year, Groveport Madison Schools began serving free breakfast to all students, regardless of their families' economic situations.

The universal breakfast program is a federally funded initiative run through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and managed by the Ohio Department of Education.

It replaces the district's previous free-breakfast program, which had been offered only to students on a reduced-cost meal plan.

"It's just so much better this way," district communications director Jeff Warner said of the universal plan open to all students. "The kids seem really happy with it.

"Another benefit is the fact that nobody knows who is on a free or reduced(-cost) food program, either. There's absolutely no stigma attached."

The program also comes at no cost to the district, Warner said.

"It's federally reimbursed, so the taxpayers aren't paying any more, and we received a grant from the No Kids Hungry Foundation to start the program," he said.

The number of students who take advantage of the program differs from school to school, but Kim Jordan, a cafeteria worker at Sedalia Elementary School, said close to 500 free breakfasts are consumed by students daily, which means more than 75% of the school's student body participates regularly.

A pilot version of the initiative was instituted at four Groveport Madison schools last year.

Warner said 26,139 breakfasts were served districtwide in the first 20 days of the 2018 school year. In the first 20 days of 2019, the number has more than doubled to 65,093, he said.

The largest increase has come at the high school. In the first 20 days of 2018, 2,503 breakfasts were served; this year, 10,879 were served during the first 20 days.

Timelines and how the program is run also differ among schools and even among classrooms, but according to information from the district, students generally are allowed to enter their respective buildings before school starts and then their classrooms as they usually would. They're given the option to take breakfast, which always features a grain, fruit and a dairy product, and students must take and eat all three. Often, classes will start after students finish eating, but some teachers choose to begin lessons while some in the classroom continue to eat.

Sedalia principal Ken Pease said the new program actually benefits the school, in terms of total learning time.

"We've noticed an increase in academic time this year," he said. "In years past, we would have 200 kids lined up (in the gym), and it would be very loud with long lines.

"With the old program, students would come directly to the gym from the bus, where breakfast was handed out and eaten," he said. "Well, the kids just weren't very excited about going back to their classrooms and a lot of them would take their time and end up late."

District officials also are excited about the potential long-term academic benefits the program could bring, Warner said.

"The research is clear: Kids who are hungry just don't do as well in school," he said. "A nutritional foundation helps them with academic performance, it helps with attention span and it even helps with behavior. It's a win all the way around."