Report: State ranks lowest in schools participating in federal breakfast program

Raven Santana, Correspondent | February 15, 2019 | Education

It’s tough to focus in school when you’re hungry. Hunger Free New Jersey Director Adele LaTourette, says that’s a problem for some students in Jersey who qualify to receive free or reduced-priced school breakfasts. LaTourette says that’s because some students who are eligible for the program aren’t taking advantage of it.

According to the Food Research and Action Center’s annual School Breakfast Scorecard, which ranks national and state participation in the School Breakfast Program, Jersey dropped from 19th to 21st place in the number of kids getting a free or reduced-price breakfast. New Jersey also has the smallest percentage in the nation of eligible schools participating in the federal school breakfast program.

“Feeding children is key to learning,” said LaTourette. “Right now New Jersey is leaving a total of 14 million federal dollars out of our state. It really is a no-brainer to make sure we maximize federal dollars coming into the state.”

What then happens to the $14 million?

“We don’t get it. That’s what happens. It sits at the federal level. It’s there. It’s available,” LaTourette said.

LaTourette believes there’s a multitude of reasons why fewer kids in our state are eating free or low-cost school breakfast. But she says part of the problem is that under the current mandate students are not always able to participate in the breakfast program “after the bell.”

“What we have is a mandate for schools with 20 percent or more free or reduced-priced students, they have to serve breakfast. But it doesn’t say how they serve it. And how they serve it is key. We know that breakfast ‘after the bell’ is the way to ensure that the majority of kids are fed,” said LaTourette. “And ‘breakfast after the bell’ means breakfast is part of the school day. We’ve seen some schools change over to serving breakfast before the bell again, and we believe those changes are having a big impact.”

Dr. Natasha Baxter, the principal of an Elementary School in Bloomfield, told NJTV News that for years they’ve only offered free and reduced priced breakfast for students before school.

Baxter said this was the first year they offered it “after the bell,” and what they noticed was less disruptive student behaviors, a reduction in suspensions and fewer trips to the nurse’s office.

LaTourette says she’s optimistic about a new law taking affect in September that will mandate that schools with 70 percent of free or reduced-priced lunches for children will have to serve breakfast after the bell.