NJ slips in school breakfast ranks

New state law promises improvement

New Jersey is heading in the wrong direction when it comes to providing school breakfast to low-income students, many of whom routinely face hunger, according to a national report released today.

The state dropped from 19th to 21st place in the Food Research and Action Center’s (FRAC) annual School Breakfast Scorecard.

Since 2011, New Jersey schools had made steady progress in reaching more hungry children through the federal School Breakfast Program, but in the 2017-18 school year student participation dipped 2 percent to 59.1 percent of students who eat free or low-cost school lunch, according to the report.

New Jersey schools are failing to claim at least $14 million in federal school breakfast funds – dollars the state’s taxpayers already send to Washington, D.C., the report found.

“This just doesn’t make sense,’’ said Adele LaTourette, director, Hunger Free New Jersey, which leads the New Jersey Food for Thought Campaign, a statewide effort to expand 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,’’ she said.

The problem, LaTourette explained, is that many schools continue to serve breakfast before school – when most students have not yet arrived. By making breakfast part of the school day, just like lunch, schools can reach all children who need this morning nutrition to concentrate and learn. Known as breakfast after the bell, this approach typically involves serving breakfast in the classroom or another location during the first few minutes of the school day.

“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.’’

A new state law promises to reverse this slide, she added.

Enacted in May 2018, state law now requires schools with at least 70 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals to serve breakfast after the bell. The New Jersey Department of Agriculture has notified 99 districts, comprising a total of 237 affected schools, that implementation plans must be submitted by May 31, 2019. Schools must begin serving breakfast after the bell in September 2019.

Other states that have implemented similar requirements have seen participation skyrocket, receiving millions more in federal dollars to fight childhood hunger and ranking as best in the nation.

“We expect that the new school breakfast law will reverse our downward slide in serving school breakfast to students in need,’’ said LaTourette, whose organization pushed for the law’s passage. “We look forward to working with school leaders across the state to implement this sensible change so all New Jersey children begin their day with a good breakfast that can boost school success.’’

Despite last year’s setback, many New Jersey schools have effectively implemented breakfast after the bell, proving that this is a do-able solution to childhood hunger, said Lisa Pitz, outreach director, Hunger Free New Jersey. From large urban districts like Newark, Camden and Atlantic City to smaller districts like Bound Brook and North Haledon, school leaders have made breakfast after the bell work, Pitz said.

In fact, Newark ranked 4th nationwide in FRAC’s companion report, School Breakfast: Making It Work in Large Districts, with 92 percent of district students receiving breakfast.

Those districts that successfully implemented breakfast after the bell have fueled New Jersey’s rise in the school breakfast ranks from 46th in 2010 – the year before the launch of the New Jersey Food for Thought Campaign, a statewide coalition that advocates for breakfast after the bell and other child nutrition programs.

“Leadership is key,’’ LaTourette said. “When you have a superintendent who recognizes that nutrition and learning go hand-in-hand and who makes breakfast a priority, you have a successful school breakfast program. And that equates to more students beginning their school day ready to learn.’’

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About the report

The Food Research and Action Center measures the reach of the federal School Breakfast Program by comparing the number of low-income children that participate in breakfast to those that participate in school lunch. The School Breakfast Scorecard contains national and state data for breakfast participation. School Breakfast – Making it Work in Large School Districts surveys large urban school districts across the country on school breakfast participation rates and policies during the school year. Both reports are available at www.frac.org.

Hunger Free New Jersey works to change policy and practice so that all New Jersey residents have healthy food to eat, every single day.