Interactive Map: Many Poor Kids Still Miss Free Breakfast In NJ

Advocates urge schools to shift to serving meals after the start of school day

More students ate breakfast at school last April than in any of the prior six years, but 300,000 low-income students who are eligible to get breakfast still don’t, a new report shows.

Advocates for Children of New Jersey released its annual report on the school breakfast program Thursday. Titled “Healthy Food, Strong Kids,” the report shows a 4 percent increase in the number of low-income students getting a free or low-cost breakfast at school in April 2016 compared with 2015. Since 2010, that number has risen by 77 percent. That increase has led to a doubling of the amount of federal aid schools get to provide that meal to an estimated $98 million in the current fiscal year.

The report also found that more children are likely receiving summer meals than in the past, as the number of sites providing these meals across the state rose by more than 20 percent in just the last year, to 1,350 this past summer.

Still, these nutrition programs and an afterschool meals program, are underutilized in many high-poverty areas.

“The good news is that childhood hunger is a solvable problem,” said Cecilia Zalkind, ACNJ’s president and CEO. “But it requires a concerted community response rooted in leadership, partnership, and the willingness to do things differently.”

ACNJ’s report states that 340,000 New Jersey children face hunger each year, and schools and communities should do more to access federal child nutrition programs and get more nourishment to the state’s children.

Each year, ACNJ has been releasing a report on school breakfast as part of the efforts of the New Jersey Food for Thought School Breakfast Campaign to increase participation. When the campaign, which involves advocates, state agencies, and national organizations, began, the state ranked near the bottom for its participation rate. Today, New Jersey has moved up to 23rd.

Officials released the report in Atlantic City, where a community coalition helped get a summer meals program operating and the public school district is one of the best in the state for serving breakfast and afterschool meals.

In 2010, about 136,000 students ate breakfast at school. Last spring, that number was close to 241,000. While that number is about 10,000 greater than in 2015, the number of students qualifying for a free- or low-cost breakfast also rose, by about 4,000. There are still 302,000 New Jersey students eligible for breakfast who did not get it last year.

Much of that increase is due to the adoption by more districts of the Breakfast After the Bell program, in which schools serve breakfast after class has started, rather than before. And the report says a reluctance to adopt that program is what is keeping the number of students not participating so high.

“While the campaign’s efforts have resulted in nearly all large urban districts serving breakfast after the bell, dozens of smaller districts with high poverty continue to serve breakfast before school,” the report states. “When districts serve breakfast before school, many students simply can’t access the meal. Time constraints, the need to care for younger siblings, transportation, early start times, and other issues prevent children and teenagers from getting to school with enough time to eat breakfast before the first bell rings.”

The report also found high schools particularly resistant to serve breakfast after the start of the school day, even in districts where breakfast is served after the bell in elementary and middle schools. ACNJ reported that nearly a third of elementary schools participated in the program, but just 12 percent of secondary schools provided breakfast after the bell.

In those schools that balk at the program, officials cite problems with the cleanup, lost instructional time, and cost as deterrents. In high schools, the large size of the buildings is also an issue. ACNJ asserts that these challenges are easy to overcome and serving breakfast once the school day has begun is both doable and effective.

By not providing breakfast to all eligible students, schools are leaving money on the table. ACNJ’s report states that districts would get an additional $74 million in federal funds if they provided the morning meal to all low-income students.

They are also putting some of their low-income students at a disadvantage. Studies have shown that eating a good breakfast is important for students. Research has found that students who eat breakfast are less disruptive, do better academically, come to class more, are late less often, and spend less time in the nurse’s office. Breakfast has also been shown to reduce childhood obesity.

ACNJ’s report includes data for every school district with at least 20 percent of students eligible for the meals. State law requires these districts to provide school breakfast. But seven districts required to participate in the program served breakfast to fewer than 1 in 10 of their low-income students last year, the report shows. These included four charter schools, Trenton Stem-to-Civics, Englewood on the Palisades, Soaring Heights in Hudson County, and Queen City Academy in Union County, and the districts of Guttenberg, Kearny, and Belleville. Trenton Stem-to-Civics served only 3 percent of those eligible, or only 5 of 175 students, while Kearny’s 7 percent participation rate meant more than 3,100 low-income students did not get breakfast.

On the other hand, three districts with more than half the student body eligible fed breakfast to more than 9 in 10 students. All three were charter schools: Hope Academy in Monmouth County, Greater Brunswick, and Atlantic Community.

Some of the state’s poorer counties had greater participation rates than the wealthiest. Some 57 percent of low-income students in Passaic County got breakfast last year, while only 16 percent of those in Hunterdon did, the data show.

New Jersey as a whole still does not meet the national standard for participation in the school breakfast program, nor for the summer meals program. In New Jersey, 59 percent of students who had a low-cost or free school lunch also had breakfast, while the national recommendation is that 70 percent should get breakfast and lunch. And while the federal standard suggests 40 percent of those getting school lunch should be receiving summer meals, New Jersey’s average was 19 percent in 2015, the most recent year for which data was available.

To ensure that more hungry children are getting fed, the report makes a number of recommendations, including that all districts switch to Breakfast After the Bell, local officials convene nutrition coalitions to work to expand programs, and the state make the locations of summer meals available early in the summer.