More Kids Getting School Breakfast, But Most Who Qualify Still Don’t

Colleen O'Dea | October 4, 2013 | Map of the Week, Maps
Providing meals after start of day proves effective in increasing participation by students from low-income families

Click on a district or county for more information. Data is available only for districts where at least 20 percent of students qualify for meals. Data for charter schools is in the table at the bottom of the story.

New Jersey school districts served breakfast to about 35 percent more needy children last April than they did three years ago, but almost two-thirds of kids who qualify for a morning meal still aren’t getting it.

Those are the major findings of the third annual NJ Food for Thought School Breakfast Report from Advocates for Children of New Jersey.

Cecilia Zalkind, ACNJ executive director, noted the mixed results from the survey of school nutrition program participation, released earlier this week.

“School breakfast addresses a major barrier to learning,” Zalkind said. “School districts should be commended for stepping up to meet the school breakfast challenge. Unfortunately, there is much work to do. An alarming 320,000 children are still missing out on that all-important morning meal at school.”

In October 2010, about 136,000 New Jersey students had breakfast at school. Just 2½ years later, after a push by ACNJ and other groups, an additional 48,000 children now get a healthy morning meal for free or a reduced price. But that still represents only 36 percent of the students who qualify based on their family’s income.

ACNJ attributes most of the rise in breakfast participation to the increase in the number of districts serving breakfast after the school day has begun. This “breakfast after the bell” approach has been found to significantly boost student participation in the federal School Breakfast Program. The percentage of those eligible who are getting breakfast in New Jersey remains low because most districts continue to serve the meal before the school day begins, when few students have even arrived.

The group used Edison schools to illustrate the difference made by serving breakfast after the bell. Two years ago, the district switched from providing breakfast before school to after the school day began – it went from feeding less than 1 percent of eligible students to serving more than 70 percent.

Edison Superintendent Richard O’Malley said the increase in federal meal reimbursements has covered the additional cost.

“It is working exceptionally well,” O’Malley said. “I hear from parents all the time who are so pleased that they have this option. Classroom time is more productive, so it really boosts instructional time and academic achievement is at an all-time high.”

Several studies have found that students who eat breakfast at school score higher on math tests, have better attendance rates and are more likely to graduate from high school.

ACNJ’s report found that the increase in students receiving breakfast is giving school districts about $10 million more in federal reimbursements this year. If all eligible New Jersey students got breakfast, the state would get an additional $85 million in federal funds to feed children, ACNJ estimated.

Breakfast participation rates varied widely, ranging from eight districts where no students get breakfast (including Paulo Freire Charter School in Essex County, where all 61 students could have gotten it), to three districts (the Greater Brunswick and Red Bank charters, and Washington Township in Burlington Township) where all eligible children eat a morning meal at school.

ACNJ also ranked New Jersey’s counties based on student participation and found the state’s poorer counties doing a better job than the wealthiest. Cumberland ranked first, feeding breakfast to 57 percent of eligible children, while Hunterdon was last, serving breakfast to just 11 percent of the county’s low-income children. Those data do not include all districts because only those with at least 20 percent of their students eligible for a free or low-cost breakfast are required to provide the meal.

Zalkind noted that the “need is growing,” citing US Census data showing that the number of low-income children has grown 19 percent in New Jersey in the last five years.

School breakfast participation information for charter schools.