School breakfast report released

New Jersey’s most impoverished schools are reaching less than half of their low-income students with federally-funded school breakfast, mainly because many continue to serve breakfast before school when most children have not yet arrived, according to a new report.

Under a new state law, these schools will be required to serve breakfast during the school day no later than September 2019, according to the report, published by Hunger Free New Jersey.

Known as breakfast after the bell, this approach significantly boosts student participation in the federal School Breakfast Program, which provides federal dollars to feed breakfast to low-income students in New Jersey and across the nation.

According to an analysis of state data conducted by Hunger Free New Jersey and the national Food Research & Action Center, 648 New Jersey public schools fall under the new law, which requires schools with 70 percent or more qualified students to serve breakfast after the bell.

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These schools account for more than half of all students enrolled in the federal school meals program. Yet, in October 2018, just 53 percent of these students received school breakfast on an average day. More than 137,000 eligible children did not receive breakfast, the report found.

If these high-poverty schools achieved 80 percent student participation, they would collectively receive an additional $30.4 million in federal funds, based on FRAC’s analysis.  These funds could be used to combat childhood hunger, while removing a major obstacle to learning, the report said.

“We know that many children and teens face hunger on a regular basis,’’ said Adele LaTourette, director, Hunger Free New Jersey. “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.’’

Statewide, school breakfast participation slid for the second straight year, declining 5 percent from April 2017 to October 2018. Despite this setback, statewide participation is still up 65 percent since 2010 – the year prior to the launch of the New Jersey Food for Thought Campaign, which aims to address childhood hunger through expanding participation in federal child nutrition programs.

The School Breakfast Program and others like it recognize the strong link between nutrition and learning, LaTourette noted. In passing the legislation in May 2018, the New Jersey State Legislature also recognized this link, requiring breakfast be offered as part of the regular school day, similar to lunch, in high-poverty schools.

“Serving breakfast before school makes it difficult for students to access this all-important morning meal,’’ LaTourette said. “Bus and family schedules and the stigma of coming to school early to eat keep many children away from the before-school breakfast table.’’

When breakfast is served during the first few minutes of the school and offered to all students, student participation skyrockets, she added.

In October 2018, 208 schools – or about one-third of the 648 high-poverty schools – were feeding at least 70 percent of eligible students, the report found. These schools are most likely already serving breakfast after the bell because it is very difficult to reach that level of participation with before-school programs, LaTourette explained.

But, 42 percent of these high-poverty schools – or 272 schools – fed less than half of their low-income students in October 2018.

“We hope local districts will use the information and statistics in this report to implement effective breakfast programs,’’ LaTourette said. “Federal dollars are available to ensure all children begin their school day with a healthy meal. Not only is this the right thing to do, it leverages our state’s considerable investment in public education by removing a major barrier to learning: hunger.’’

Read the report.
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Hunger Free New Jersey works to change policy and practice to ensure all  New Jersey residents have healthy food to eat, every single day.

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