The number of children eating breakfast at schools in New Jersey dropped last year for the first time this decade — a development that concerns advocates who say it means fewer low-income students are getting a meal that research shows boosts their participation in class.
The Annual School Breakfast Scorecard released today by the Food Research and Action Center also shows that New Jersey had the smallest percentage of eligible schools participating in the federal school-breakfast program, dropping from 50th to 51st, including the District of Columbia.
Advocates note, however, that New Jersey should begin feeding breakfast to many more students in the coming school year or even sooner due to a state law enacted last May requiring all schools with large low-income populations to offer a “Breakfast After the Bell” program. Experience has shown that more students eat breakfast when it is offered during the first period, rather than before school.
“This just doesn’t make sense,’’ said Adele LaTourette, director of Hunger Free New Jersey, which leads the New Jersey Food for Thought Campaign that works to increase participation in federal child-nutrition programs. “We have hungry kids. We have a federal program that provides money to feed these children a healthy breakfast. And still, far too many New Jersey schools fail to take steps to maximize participation.’’
New Jersey had made great strides in feeding children breakfast at school, rising from a rank of 48th in the nation in the 2011-2012 school year to 19th in 2016-2017. Last school year, though, the number of students getting a free- or reduced-price breakfast dropped by almost 2 percent, to about 268,000, and New Jersey’s national rank fell to 21st.
The most recent data from the New Jersey Food for Thought Campaign indicated that some 300,000 children from low-income families did not receive breakfast at school in April 2017 even though they were eligible.
Pushback over disruption and logistics
Advocates speculate that the decline occurred when some school districts abandoned their Breakfast After the Bell programs, either due to a change in district or school leadership or as a result of getting pushback from teachers or principals. Some officials say allowing children to eat breakfast during first period can be disruptive to teaching or difficult to organize.
“When schools serve breakfast after the bell, participation skyrockets,’’ LaTourette said. “Many New Jersey schools have successfully adopted this approach, but many have stubbornly resisted, while others have rolled back programs due to logistical concerns.’’
Those who have embraced the program, however, say children are more alert and focused when they have had a healthy breakfast. Research has shown that participation in a school-breakfast program improves student attendance, behavior, and academic performance; children who experience hunger are more apt to have emotional, behavioral, and academic problems.
But New Jersey ranks last in the proportion of eligible schools providing breakfast, according to the report. In 2017-2018, 2,630 NJ schools participated in the national school-lunch program, while 2,172, or 82.6 percent of them , offered breakfast. Nationally, more than 93 percent of schools that gave students free or reduced-price lunch also provided breakfast.
Wisconsin ranked just above New Jersey, with 82.8 percent. In five locations — Texas, South Carolina, Delaware, Arkansas, and the District of Columbia — nearly every school-lunch location also offered breakfast.
Legislative package expected to boost numbers
Concerned that too many students were going to school hungry, state lawmakers passed a package of bills in a largely bipartisan fashion last spring and Gov. Phil Murphy signed them into law.
The most significant change requires schools 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. That could help an additional 118,000 students receive their first meal at school, according to Advocates for Children of New Jersey data. While schools do not need to put Breakfast After the Bell in place until September, some have begun doing so, advocates say.
According to Hunger Free New Jersey, the state Department of Agriculture, which oversees the nutrition programs, has notified 99 districts with 237 affected schools that their Breakfast After the Bell implementation plans must be submitted by May 31.
“We expect that the new school breakfast law will reverse our downward slide in serving school breakfast to students in need,’’ said LaTourette.
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 This year, a family of four could earn no more than $33,475 annually to qualify for a free lunch or $46,435 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.
A step around paperwork requirements
A provision of federal law known as community eligibility allows schools with a large proportion of low-income students to provide meals to all students, bypassing the typical paperwork requirements. But according to an FRAC database, only 40 percent of 717 New Jersey schools that were eligible or nearly eligible did so last year. Nonparticipating schools included those in East Orange, Elizabeth, Irvington, Long Branch, Perth Amboy, Plainfield, Trenton, Vineland, and West New York.
Another law signed by Murphy last year requires districts that choose not to participate in community eligibility to tell the state departments of agriculture and education why in writing.
In some schools that don’t qualify or choose not to participate in community eligibility, officials offer parents the option of paying for breakfast for their children. That option has been somewhat popular, with more than 56,000 students paying for breakfast at school — more than 17 percent of all the breakfasts served last year.
“Some districts are providing it free to qualified students and giving parents the option of paying,” said Nancy Parello, a spokeswoman for Hunger Free New Jersey. “So that’s been a kind of side effect of this and points to the fact that parents like the convenience of having their children eat at school.”