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Op-Ed: The Power of a Simple Idea -- Helping NJ Students Start the Day Healthier

Serve students the most important meal of the day after the school bell rings, when they are already at their desks

Margarethe P. Laurenzi
Margarethe P. Laurenzi

Sometimes a simple idea is worth pursuing.

Take, for instance, the way breakfast is served to young people in schools across New Jersey. It used to be that if you wanted your breakfast -- free (especially important to students in families at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level) -- you had to wake up extra early and find your own ride to school. But why not provide the breakfast after the school bell rings, when the students would already be at their desks?

It was a simple idea that, with the help of several community partners, has yielded remarkable results.

In the four short years of the Food for Thought: NJ School Breakfast Campaign, led by Advocates for Children of New Jersey and the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition and supported by the Community Foundation of New Jersey and others, New Jersey has jumped from 48th to 28th in national rankings of eligible students receiving school breakfast -- a rise far greater and faster than any other state.

The progress New Jersey has made in removing hunger as a barrier to learning is remarkable not only for its relative size and speed, but also because of the simplicity of the idea. To be sure the campaign’s steering committee of anti-hunger, education, health, and child advocates has worked incredibly hard to bring about this change and we are grateful for their continued focus on improving the lives of young people across our state.

But compared to the myriad other challenges in our classrooms and beyond, moving breakfast from before the bell to after is so logical and amenable to people of all persuasions that convincing school districts to make the switch has caught on organically.

No expensive media campaign, no political lobbying, and no years-long academic research. According to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), "New Jersey’s [school breakfast] participation rate jumped nearly 13 percent from the 2012-13 to the 2013-14 school years. […] The average national increase was about 3 percent."

And these outputs are not without significant outcomes. Healthy students are better students, empowered to think more clearly and solve problems more easily. There are benefits for the state as well, which was losing out on more than $21 million in federal reimbursements when only 130,000 of 400,000 students who met school-breakfast eligibility requirements actually received the meal.

Fortunately, moving breakfast after the bell is hardly the only good idea out there. A study from the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs found that students who eat lunch after recess -- not before -- ate 54 percent more vegetables and ate their meals more slowly. The Center also found that when one New York school changed the name of a bean burrito to the “Big Bad Bean Burrito,” the item became noticeably more popular with young students. Elsewhere in the world, some schools in Finland and Sweden found that reducing the number of waste receptacles in the cafeteria has led to a nearly 50 percent reduction in food waste, with students eating those less desirable food items (read: vegetables) they would otherwise throw out.

These are the ideas -- original, innovative, occasionally unorthodox -- that fundholders at the Community Foundation of New Jersey are particularly passionate about, and to the extent they create meaningful change in our communities, we will continue to seek them out.

For New Jersey students in low-income families, the meals at school will remain free, but because of this straightforward reform, they will face one less hurdle on their way to a healthy school day.

Margarethe P. Laurenzi is Director of Leadership Grantmaking and Engagement at the Community Foundation of New Jersey.

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