Every weekday morning, nearly 268,000 New Jersey students start their day with a free breakfast. It’s a program that’s grown here in recent years. According to the National Food and Research Action Center, New Jersey ranks 19th on the annual School Breakfast Scorecard for the 2016-2017 school year. New Jersey didn’t budge from the year prior, but it’s an improvement from ranking 46th in 2011.
Yet advocates say far too many more low-income children are still missing out.
“This year we did our own school breakfast report. We found a drop in the number of children getting breakfast,” said Cecilia Zalkind, president and CEO of Advocates for Children of New Jersey.
Advocates for Children of New Jersey did their own deep dive using raw numbers. The national report assumes students who are eligible and participating in the free lunch program also receive breakfast. Yet ACNJ’s data shows New Jersey schools served breakfast to 4 percent, or roughly 10,600, fewer poor students. Zalkind says schools are reluctant to switch from serving breakfast before the bell to after.
“Districts that serve kids before the bell in school in a central location are serving breakfast when kids are not there, if you want to reach kids go in the classroom,” said Zalkind.
New Jersey state law requires a school breakfast program when at least 20 percent of the student body qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch. The federal government picks up the full tab, and Zalkind says the state gets more money for increased enrollment.
So, how much money is New Jersey leaving on the table by not participating at that level?
“So, I’d have to calculate how much is left. I can tell you how much we gained in those 100,000 kids who now get breakfast every day. We’re getting almost $100 million more a year in federal money. It’s significant,” said Zalkind.
“People need to focus on the fact that children need to be fed in school. They need to eat to learn. It’s a change, I think that’s the biggest barrier it’s a change in the normal way of doing things,” said Adele LaTourette, the director of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition.
The opposition is mainly about scheduling. Teachers say they worry about kids missing the bus, arriving to school late, and the program encroaching on instructional time.
“We hear from teachers and principals who say, ‘I didn’t want to do that, not only has it been easier, but I see the benefits to the kids, behavior is better, fewer trips to the nurse they can pay attention in class,'” said Zalkind.
Despite the acknowledgment of progress, groups are lobbying for legislation requiring all schools with 70 percent or more eligible, to serve breakfast after the bell to all students, hoping this new administration will champion the cause.
Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multiplatform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by the JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.