New Jersey’s Poorest Kids Are Missing Out on Breakfast

John Mooney | October 3, 2012 | Education
Low-income children in NJ are eligible for a free breakfast program in schools, but nearly two-thirds are not being fed

It’s a lesson that kids learn at a very early age: start every day with a good breakfast.

Apparently, more than a few New Jersey school leaders have forgotten it.

Despite the requirements, the common sense, and even ample federal money, New Jersey’s public schools provide free breakfast to just a third of the low-income students entitled to it, leaving roughly 200,000 children without a guarantee of that first meal.

Interactive Map: Is NJ Feeding Its Poorest Kids?

Some of the worst offenders are in cities where the nutrition may be needed most, including two districts operated by the state, Paterson and Jersey City.

The Advocates for Children of New Jersey, a Newark-based organization, yesterday hosted a star-studded presentation of its latest findings about participation in the breakfast program.

Held at Newark’s East Side High School, much of the event was given over to positive news, as ACNJ announced that the number of students participating rose more than 20 percent from the organization’s first report two years ago.

On hand were a number of luminaries, including state Agriculture Commissioner Douglas Fisher, Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson.

Of New Jersey’s three state-operated districts, Newark was one of the luminaries, where 70 percent of eligible students are fed each morning, the ACNJ said.

But it was clearly an exception in a state with one of the worst participation rates in the country.

A separate analysis last year by the Food Research and Action Center, a national group, found that New Jersey was 48th out of 50 states and Washington, D.C., that serves breakfast to kids who receive free or subsidized lunches.

That is part of the challenge: the breakfast participation is so much lower than it is for lunch, even for the same students who are eligible.

Interactive Map: Elementary School Districts

The law requires all schools with at least 20 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch to also have a breakfast program. But breakfast poses particular obstacles, including how to serve specified students who come to school at different times; how not to interfere with the start of instruction; and even how to clean it all up.

In many districts, the breakfast program is dished up before the school day starts, but that may leave out a large number who come on school buses or can’t get there early. More districts are starting to serve up breakfast in the classroom, but that adds to the logistical challenges of how to handle and clean up the food.

Schools have come up with some novel solutions, such as providing “brown bag” breakfasts for students as they walk into school. A few are serving breakfast to all students, regardless of income. Edison does this, with ineligible students being charged a nominal sum.

In North Brunswick, cleanup is made easier by supplying a trash bag for each classroom that’s left outside of the door for custodial staff to retrieve. Newark schools have the students themselves help in passing out and cleaning up after breakfast. Newark East Side High School serves every one of its 1,500 students, one of the few high schools in the state to do so, officials said.

Interactive map: Regional High School Districts

ACNJ in its report highlighted a number of districts where at least 60 percent of eligible students are served, including Perth Amboy, Atlantic City, Vineland, and Hackensack. A half-dozen charter schools also have high participation rates, although with smaller numbers of students.

Several districts have made big improvements in the past two years, too, including West New York, which tripled its participation rate, according to the report.

Despite the good news, the sobering fact is that more than 60 high-poverty districts have participation rates of less than 30 percent. That alone accounts for close to half of the students not being served statewide — and more than $28 million in federal aid is being left unspent.

Interactive Map: K-12 Districts

In Jersey City, just 18 percent participate. In Paterson, it’s 27 percent. Others on the ACNJ’s underachiever list: Plainfield, Irvington, Bayonne, and Willingboro. And charter schools are especially well-represented on this list as well, almost half of the overall schools.

Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of ACNJ, said solving the problem will come down to a number of factors, including easing some of the logistical hurdles and raising the public’s awareness.

Could the state itself do more? She said there was some state incentive money at one time, although few districts took advantage of it. And Cerf and Fisher last year helped with a memo to all districts that encouraged them to include breakfast after the start of school to boost participation.

But too many districts still don’t make it a priority, she said, pointing to one superintendent of a large urban district with an abysmal record of participation, who last year mostly made excuses when challenged by a parent.

“It will come down to leadership,” Zalkind said. “It was nice that the commissioners last year put out the memo, but if nobody keeps saying this is important and we will hold you accountable, it won’t happen.”