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Food for Thought: NJ Schools Making Sure Kids Eat Breakfast

Participation rises 15 percent as educators, advocates for low-income children stress impact on concentration and learning

New Jersey school districts boosted the number of low-income children receiving breakfast by about 15 percent last year, according to data released by a children's advocacy group, but there are still 300,000 students going hungry as the school day begins.

The fourth annual NJ Food for Thought School Breakfast Report released yesterday by Advocates for Children of New Jersey states that nearly 211,000 children in the state ate a healthy breakfast at school in April or May of 2014. That compares with 184,000 fed through the federally-funded program in Spring 2013 and 136,000 in October 2010. In 2010, just 30 percent of eligible children received a meal, while last spring that percentage had risen to 41 percent.

Still that means almost 6 of every 10 low-income students are not getting breakfast at school, although studies have shown that eating a good breakfast can help improve learning and that students from low-income backgrounds start off their school careers at a disadvantage compared to wealthier classmates.

“School breakfast addresses a major barrier to learning,” said Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey. “An alarming 300,000 children are still missing out on that all-important morning meal at school. And the need is growing. New Census data show a 22 percent increase in the number of children living in poor families since 2009. That’s means more children are likely arriving in the classroom hungry.”

The report shows that the number of students eligible to receive a free or reduced-price meal because of income has risen 16 percent in the last 3 1/2 years. As of May, almost 520,000 students, or 38 percent of the total enrollment, were eligible to receive breakfast.

As it released the report, ACNJ celebrated schools that have boosted participation in their breakfast programs substantially. Among those is Lafayette School In Bound Brook, where the group held a press conference yesterday. Lafayette had the highest increase in the number of students eating breakfast at school, Bound Brook is now serving breakfast in the classroom in all of its schools, and 82 percent of the 1,258 students eligible got breakfast last May, ACNJ data shows.

“We recognize that hungry students struggle to learn so it is incumbent on us, as a district, to ensure that all of our students begin their day with a healthy meal,” said Bound Brook Superintendent Dan Gallagher. “We have seen great results with breakfast after the bell. Our students are more focused and ready to learn.”

Mary Jo McKinley, director of Academy Charter High School in Lake Como, agrees. She has made breakfast such a priority that nearly every eligible student is getting breakfast each morning, according to the data.

"We make sure the calendar and arrival of buses and start of the school day are timed so the kids have time for breakfast," she said. "We get students involved in the menu selection process so their voices are heard ... They are aware how it helps them to think better."

The increase in breakfast participation is largely the result of more districts changing the way they serve breakfast, moving the meal from before school -- and before many children had arrived -- to the start of classes. Known as “breakfast after the bell,” this approach significantly boosts student participation in the federal School Breakfast Program.

As a result of the increase in breakfast participation, New Jersey districts are expected to collect $21 million more in federal reimbursements this year alone to feed hungry students, ACNJ reported, citing the state’s FY 2015 budget. If all New Jersey schools that are required to have a school breakfast program fed all eligible children, districts would get an estimated $81.3 million more in federal funds to feed hungry children.

"School districts should be commended for stepping up to meet the school breakfast challenge," Zalkind said.

ACNJ's report includes data for every school district with at least 20 percent of students eligible for free- and reduced-priced school meals. State law requires these districts to provide school breakfast. Yet the data shows there are 35 districts where fewer than 10 percent of eligible students received breakfast last spring. Six -- Hampton and Stockton in Hunterdon, Lavallette in Ocean, Pohatcong in Warren, Rochelle Park in Bergen, and Woodland in Burlington -- did not feed any students last spring, the ACNJ data shows.

“We are calling on school boards, superintendents, principals and teachers to provide leadership in expanding school breakfast because this makes smart sense for children, schools and the state as a whole,” Zalkind said. “Providing breakfast leverages the billions of dollars we invest each year in educating our children, ensuring that more students succeed in school.”

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