As they headed out to a playground covered in sunshine at exactly 10 a.m., they eagerly grabbed a brown bag off a table and ran over to a bench - to eat brunch.
Technically, it was breakfast, one provided for free by the federal school meals program.
But too many of the students at San Francisco's Charles R. Drew Elementary were skipping the before-school breakfast, arriving too late to eat or not feeling hungry first thing in the morning. They ended up cranky in class, distracted by their growling tummies and less able to learn.
Two weeks ago, the school started offering them a second chance to eat - at recess. It's a pilot for the Second Chance Breakfast program for the school district.
Almost instantly, breakfast participation shot up from 100 students to 160, said Zetta Reicker, interim director of district student nutrition services.
"Now we can reach more children," said Drew Principal Tamitrice Rice Mitchell. "Every child has an opportunity to eat."
Boosting participation in breakfast programs has become a top priority in schools across the country, with research showing that a healthful morning meal improves attendance and academic performance while reducing behavior problems.
Better health habitsIn addition, kids who eat breakfast at school are less likely to be overweight and more likely to eat fruit and drink milk, according to the national Food Research and Action Center, a nonprofit working to eradicate hunger.
Educators say they don't need to see the research to see the positive impacts of eating breakfast.
"I can tell when it's time for me to eat - I'm cranky, I'm grumbling and snapping," Mitchell said, adding it's the same with children. "If I take care of my immediate needs, guess what's going to happen in the classroom."
About half the students who eat a school lunch also eat the school breakfast, according to state and national statistics.
In San Francisco, participation has been even lower, with about 25 percent of lunch eaters also getting breakfast, district officials said. Overall, only about 15 percent of low-income students, who are eligible for free or reduced-priced meals, eat school breakfast across the district.
Reasons for skippingThe drop in participation can be attributed to late Muni buses or other delays in getting to school, a lack of hunger first thing in the morning, and choosing to mingle with friends instead of going to the cafeteria, Reicker said.
"The breakfast before school can be socially isolating," she said.
The second breakfast requires increased staff time, but the cost is more than covered by the extra federal funding the district gets for feeding more students.
One day this week, the breakfast menu featured a bagel with cream cheese, yogurt, milk and orange slices.
On another day, Stephanie Aguirre, 11, sat with friends on the Drew playground during the fifth-grade recess and peered into her breakfast bag. There was a container of whole-grain, cinnamon apple cereal shaped like happy faces, an apple, a hard-boiled egg and milk.
"For people that come too late or don't eat, they get to eat at recess," she said. "When you eat, your mind thinks more."
Her classmate Kiara Lampkin, 11, agreed.
"It gives you a chance to think and learn," she said as she ate the egg white and then the yolk, adding that it was good but would be better with salt, which isn't included because it's a no-no under federal health guidelines.
The second-chance breakfast is one of several national strategies promoted by nutrition advocates and federal agencies to get more kids eating that morning meal.
In San Francisco, district officials are also testing a breakfast-in-class model at Bryant Elementary, with meals delivered to classrooms first thing in the morning. Teachers use the time to teach nutrition and other health topics, Reicker said.
Various alternativesThe two pilots are part of the district's broader effort to increase participation in school meals.
Middle and high schools offer a grab-and-go breakfast at a few locations on campus, making the meals more convenient than a visit to the cafeteria.
In addition, three schools, Balboa High School, Marina Middle School and Glen Park Elementary, are offering supper to students in the after-school program; it's a well-rounded meal that includes things like hummus and pita chips, Reicker said.
"It's absolutely not meant to replace the home meal," she said. "But a lot of our families need that extra support.
"Unfortunately, some of our families don't have enough to make ends meet."