Whether needy New Jersey students receive a free breakfast at school depends on where they attend classes, according to a recent report which also documented a drop in participation in the federal school breakfast program.
That will change next fall, however, when a new state law mandating that schools with large populations of children eligible for a free or reduced-price breakfast serve that meal after the bell rings, rather than before classes begin. Lawmakers passed and Gov. Phil Murphy signed that requirement into law last year because of uneven participation rates throughout the state.
The latest Food for Thought report, issued by Hunger Free New Jersey earlier this month, found that just 42 percent of children eligible for breakfast through the program received that meal last October. That’s 11,000 fewer than in April 2017, when the participation rate was 44 percent. In all, 313,000 low-income children did not get breakfast despite being eligible for it.
Research has shown that eating a healthy breakfast at school helps children in a number of ways. It improves student attendance, behavior, and academic performance. On the other hand, children who are hungry are more apt to have emotional, behavioral, and academic problems.
Data shows that students are more apt to eat a nutritious breakfast at school when it is served during the first period of the day. In schools that make breakfast available before classes begin, fewer students get the meal because they either can’t get to school early enough or choose not to do so. The report states: “Bus and family schedules and the stigma of coming to school early to eat keep many children away from the before-school breakfast table.”
Concern that too many were going to school hungry
Concerned that too many students were going to school hungry, state lawmakers passed a package of bills largely with bipartisan support last year. Murphy signed them into law last spring.
The most significant new law 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.
Hunger Free New Jersey’s report states that 648 of the state’s schools, or about a third of all that provide breakfast, fall into that category. Only 53 percent of more than 291,000 students in those schools eligible for the morning meal actually received it last October. The group sets 80 percent breakfast participation as an achievable goal for schools.
The state Department of Agriculture, which oversees this and other nutrition programs, already has notified those districts with schools impacted by the new law that they must submit Breakfast After the Bell implementation plans by May 31. Schools that already offer breakfast after classes start do so in one or more ways: They serve breakfast to students in their first classes, put breakfasts on carts in high-traffic areas of schools and allow students to grab a meal and bring it to the first class, make a grab-and-go breakfast available after first class so those who may not have been hungry or who need a pick-me-up can eat then.
Districts that have so far resisted serving breakfast after class begins typically say that doing so presents logistical challenges, but many schools do so successfully, said Adele LaTourette, the director of Hunger Free New Jersey.
Many schools already serve breakfast ‘after the bell’
“We know that many children and teens face hunger on a regular basis,” she said. “Many New Jersey schools have been proactive and implemented breakfast after the bell, proving that this is a do-able solution. Other districts, however, have resisted making the switch, so we expect to see a healthy increase in breakfast participation as a result of the new law.’”
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 $33,630 annually to qualify for a free lunch or $46,435 for a reduced-price meal, according to the report. By law, schools where at least 20 percent of students qualify for a subsidized lunch must also offer a breakfast program.
The Thought for Food report includes a list of schools it considers underachievers — high-poverty schools with at least seven in 10 students eligible that actually serve breakfast to fewer than 20 percent of those who qualify for the meal. These were the 10 schools with the lowest participation rates in October 2018:
1. Hoboken Charter High School
Seventy-five students were eligible, or three-quarters of the school’s enrollment. Just 1 percent got breakfast on an average day, leaving 74 unserved.
2. Foundation Collegiate Charter, Trenton
Two hundred and twenty-eight students were eligible, or 78 percent of enrollment. Three percent received breakfast, leaving 221 without.
3. Henry Snyder High School, Jersey City
All 868 students were eligible. Four percent got breakfast, leaving 833 unserved.
4. (tied) Passaic High School
All 2,586 students were eligible. Six percent received breakfast, leaving 2,431 without.
4 (tied) Plainfield High School
Three-quarters of those enrolled — 1,326 students — were eligible. Six percent received breakfast, leaving 1,246 unserved.
4 (tied) North Star Academy’s Washington Park High School, Newark
Five hundred and seven students were eligible, or 78 percent of those enrolled. Six percent got breakfast, leaving 477 without.
7. Lincoln High School, Jersey City
All 694 students were eligible. Seven percent got breakfast, leaving 645 unserved.
8 (tied) Passaic Preparatory Academy, Passaic City
All 708 students were eligible. Eight percent received breakfast, leaving 651 without.
8 (tied) Jersey City Community Charter’s M.E.T.S. Charter School
Seventy one percent of those enrolled, or 393 students were eligible. Eight percent got breakfast, leaving 362 unserved.
8 (tied) Innovation High School, Jersey City
All 318 students were eligible. Eight percent got breakfast, leaving 293 without.