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October 3, 2011

New Jersey ranks 46th in the country in providing federally funded free school breakfasts -- not because there are so few children eligible but because most towns that have a high percentage of eligible children don't encourage participation. Indeed, many of these towns could provide free breakfasts to all of their students if they created a system that promoted participation. That's the finding of a new report by Advocates for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ), a child advocacy group based in Newark.

The report states that only 28 percent of children eligible for the program received school breakfast in 2010-2011, despite the fact that the schools are required to provide it. Every district that has more than 20 percent of students qualifying for a free or reduced-price lunch program -- which is basically those families eligible for food stamps -- must provide breakfast. However, only 4 percent of the 313 New Jersey districts eligible serve at least 75 percent eligible children.

Breakfast has been shown to benefit student learning, behavior and increase metabolism.

The report says that if the districts encouraged more participation through programs such as breakfast "grab and go" or carts in the classroom, the reimbursements from the federal government would be high enough to provide breakfasts for both eligible and ineligible students for little or no cost. That's because the additional cost of food is minimal, and declines per meal based on volume, while labor and equipment costs remain stable.

The ACNJ estimates that there are 68 districts that are considered high-need and have low participation. They include Jersey City, Paterson, Passaic, Plainfield, West New York, Fairview, Dover, Hoboken, Roselle, Freehold, and Mount Holly. To see how your district or county fares, go here.

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