Hungry Kids Can’t Learn: Feeding More Students Breakfast, Lunch at School

A package of bills seeks to expand number of poor and low-income students getting federally funded meals at school, track those not being fed

school meals
More than a half million New Jersey students live in low-income households with little money for the day’s meals. The state Senate on Monday approved a package of bills that would help prevent many of these youngsters from going hungry.

Approved by unanimous or near unanimous votes, the measures would expand the school breakfast and summer-meals programs to thousands of additional students and would have the state track districts not fully participating in the federal meal programs and count students who are denied meals.

“Child hunger should not be an issue in New Jersey, yet there are students every day that come to school hungry,” said Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the prime sponsor of the four bills that cleared the Senate. “These bills will expand the successful breakfast after the bell program, encourage participation in breakfast and lunch programs, and give us an opportunity to obtain federal funding to support them.”

Fewer eating breakfast

The most recent Food For Thought report from Advocates for Children of New Jersey found that in April 2017, 540,000 students here were eligible for free or reduced-price meals in school, but just 44 percent of those eligible actually got breakfast in school. An update of that report indicated that last October, the percentage getting their morning meal at school had dropped to 42 percent.

A coalition of groups led by the ACNJ began the Breakfast After the Bell School for Thought effort in 2011 and successfully boosted the number of students served school breakfast by 73 percent. Last year was the first time since that push began, that the number of students getting breakfast at school declined.

S-1894, the most significant bill in the package, would require all districts where at least 70 percent of students are eligible for a free or reduced-price meal to serve breakfast after the start of the school day, rather than before the bell rings. According to data from ACNJ, more than 118,000 students in these districts, or about 44 percent of all those eligible, did not get breakfast at school.

At a hearing on the bill last month, more than a dozen parents, advocates, and school officials testified to the success of serving breakfast after the bell. They said they were able to reach more students in that way because many were not able to get to school early enough to eat prior to class time. They also reported other positive outcomes, including greater student attendance and graduation rates, which they attributed to children not being hungry at school.

If After the Bell becomes law

Some school officials have balked at the idea of serving breakfast during class time, saying it takes away from student learning and would pose a logistical nightmare. Most schools with large percentages of low-income students would no longer have a choice, should the bill become law, although any school that currently serves breakfast to at least 70 percent of eligible students could receive a waiver from offering breakfast after the start of the day. Schools would have a year from the date the bill is signed to put a Breakfast After the Bell program in place.

“Making sure children have enough food to eat is critical both for their health and wellbeing, but also to ensuring they are able to learn to the best of their ability,” said Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer), another sponsor of the package. “This is about ensuring that our students are prepared for the school day, but also about getting the resources we are entitled to from the federal government.”

Through the federal school lunch program, first enacted in 1946, schools get subsidies to provide either free or low-cost lunches to students whose families meet income requirements — during the past year, a family of four could earn no more than $31,590 annually to qualify for a free lunch or $44,955 for a reduced-price meal. By law, schools where at least 20 percent of students qualify for a subsidized lunch must also offer a breakfast program. New Jersey’s participation rate ranked it 19th in the nation, according to a recent report by the Food Research and Action Center.

Cecilia Zalkind, ACNJ president and CEO, said she was happy to see the entire bill package pass the Senate.

“(These bills) all take an important step forward in feeding hungry kids,” she said. “The mandate that requires schools with 70 percent or more children eligible for school meals to serve breakfast after the bell is especially exciting. Serving breakfast after the bell is the way to reach the most children. Not only does it give children a nutritious start to their school day, it brings more federal money into the state. It is a win-win for everyone, as the many groups that supported this bill attested.”

Another breakfast measure

A second bill designed to further boost breakfast participation, S-1895, would require reports from districts with at least one school that qualifies for a special federal community eligibility provision that makes it easier to offer school meals. Under community eligibility, high-poverty schools are able to serve breakfast and lunch to all students without requiring any families to fill out the annual applications that are usually required.

Advocates are puzzled as to why many eligible schools have not implemented community eligibility given the benefits, the greatest of which is that all students — even those whose income would not make them eligible — are able to eat two meals a day in school at no cost to the district because it is federally funded.

An analysis of the state Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Provision Annual Notification dated April 28, 2017 indicates that only 67 of 154 districts eligible to take advantage of the special provision did so in the past school year.

A third bill, S-1896, would require school districts to report quarterly to the DOA the number of all students denied breakfast or lunch at school, regardless of income. State law allows a school to refuse to serve breakfast or lunch to any student whose meal bill or account remains unpaid for more than three weeks. That information would be forwarded to the state Department of Education. It would enable state officials and the public to see how many students are not able to get a meal at school.

The final bill, S-1897, attempts to deal with hunger during the summer months. It would require all school districts where at least half of students are eligible for school-year meals to sponsor a Summer Food Service Program. This is another federal program that provides reimbursement for feeding youngsters. According to state agriculture department data, more than 1,300 sites across New Jersey offered low-income children a free lunch, breakfast, or both last summer.

Still, the number of students served during the summer is far less than those who get a subsidized meal at school. According to the Food Research and Action Center’s 2017 Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation report, nearly 81,000 children received a subsidized summer meal on average each day in July 2016. But that meant just two of every 10 children who received a school-year meal got one during the summer. FRAC’s goal is to have 40 percent of low-income students served during the summer, which is about twice what New Jersey did two years ago.

Neither advocates nor the bill’s sponsors provided estimates of the impact of requiring all districts with half their enrollment low-income kids to offer a summer meals program. A comparison of school lunch eligibility data from the National Center for Education Statistics with the state agriculture database of summer meals sites found that about 20 school districts would have to start new summer meal programs. Should the bill be enacted, districts would have two years to get a summer meals program started.

All four measures have similar bills pending in the Assembly. Three of the four are awaiting final action by the lower house, with the fourth — the expansion of the breakfast after the bell program — having passed the Assembly Education Committee and awaiting action by the Assembly Appropriations Committee.