Though it's made great strides in recent years, New Jersey's school breakfast program has reached a plateau, according to a new national report.
The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) released its annual School Breakfast Report Card for 2016-2017. It shows New Jersey remains 19th in the country for its low-income student participation rate in the school breakfast program — the same position it held the previous school year, but up from the 23rd in 2014-2015 and an abysmal 48th in 2011.
What's more, the report calculates New Jersey would have received $13,466,080 in additional federal funding if it met the national recommendation that 70 percent of low-income students receive school breakfast.
State law requires schools to have a breakfast program when at least 20 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, but providing breakfast is often more complicated. Students miss buses and arrive late; teachers fear that eating after the morning bell will interrupt crucial instruction time.
New Jersey's participation rate is slightly higher this year than last: 59.4 percent up from 58.6 percent. But advocates say the state's lack of a significant increase represents a failure for low-income students.
"It's sounding an alarm," said Cecilia Zalkind, New Jersey's president and CEO for Advocates for Children in an interview with NJ Spotlight. "We need to take a look at this and examine why it's happening."
FRAC's national report card takes a different approach to data analysis than comparable state data reports in that it compares School Breakfast Program (SBP) numbers to National School Lunch Program (NSLP) numbers to establish a ratio by which a state is evaluated. The assumption, the report notes, is if a student is eligible and participating in the lunch program, they should also be participating in the breakfast program.
According to that metric, New Jersey, along with Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Nebraska, and Wisconsin were the lowest performers in terms of school participation in the SBP — less than 84 percent of schools that offered lunch in New Jersey also offered breakfast. The ratio of New Jersey schools offering breakfast to schools offering lunch was 81.4. This breaks down to about 270,008 low-income SBP students versus 454,598 low-income NSLP students.
Comparing that number to 2015 shows little improvement. In the 2015-2016 school year, New Jersey was one of the two lowest-performing states offering breakfast in 80 percent of schools operating the NSLP (Wisconsin was the other).
While this report, unlike theof the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, deals with national numbers, the FRAC researchers did zoom in on the Newark public school district and its successes relative to the state as a whole.
In Newark, the report states, 30,101 of the 36,281 students enrolled in the district (83 percent) are eligible for free or reduced-price meals through assistance programs like SNAP and TANF or through programs for homeless and migrant children. The average daily low-income student participation in the SBP in Newark is 16,015 students to 17,342 in NSLP or 92.3 percent of those eligible.
Prior to the 2011 launch of the New Jersey Food for Thought School Breakfast Campaign to increase participation, New Jersey ranked 46th in the nation which makes its rise to 19th place in six years a major feat. However, according to an analysis of state data by Advocates for Children of New Jersey, from April 2016 to October 2017, schools served breakfast to nearly 10,600 fewer low-income students, a 4 percent decline.
"It's disappointing to see a drop in state data like that," Zalkind said. "After six years of steady progress that's a cause for concern."
The breakfast-after-the-bell approach, a method adopted in states like New York, attempts to make breakfast more accessible to students by moving it out of the central school cafeteria before school starts and integrate it as part of the school day, much as lunch is.
"Over the past six years, we have worked diligently with many school districts to help them implement breakfast after the bell,'' Adele LaTourette, the director of New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition wrote in a press release. "Unfortunately, we've hit a brick wall in many districts where school administrators simply will not consider even piloting this much more effective approach to serving breakfast.''
In some districts like Edison, breakfast is served "brown bag" style to be eaten in homeroom or the first class of the day; others serve the meal to all students regardless of income (students ineligible for free or reduced-price meals are charged a nominal fee).
Advocacy groups including the ACNJ and New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition are working with lawmakers to draft legislation that would require schools with at least 70 percent of students eligible for free or low-cost school breakfast to serve it in the first moments of the school day after the bell rings.
"It is time for New Jersey to enact a statewide policy that ensures all children have the morning nutrition they need to succeed in school,'' Zalkind wrote in a press release. "Hungry children simply cannot learn. Federal dollars are available to feed children breakfast. It's unconscionable that we are not doing all we can to maximize that resource.''