HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — Jayden Bailey shyly nodded his head. He liked his breakfast.

The second-grader at the George L. Hess Educational Complex had an open container of 1 percent milk on his desk next to a half-eaten goldfish-shaped graham cracker. “My favorite part of it is dipping it in the milk,” he said.

He was not alone. About half the children in the classroom had some milk, juice, cereal or graham cracker on their desk.

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“Sometimes I get the dry cereal, sometimes I get the juice,” said Angela Cure, sitting next to Jayden.

The school’s success in getting kids to eat their breakfast was recently recognized by organizers of the “Eat Right, Move More” contest. The program, in its seventh year, is a partnership among the New York Jets professional football team, state Department of Agriculture and the American Dairy Association and Dairy Council. It encourages New Jersey students to eat healthy food and become more active.

The emphasis this year is on schools such as Hess that offer breakfast in the classroom before lessons start for the day. Schools had to demonstrate their efforts to improve nutrition and physical activity, and the group reviewed school menus.

Because it was one of the winners, the Hess school will be visited by a New York Jets player sometime in the spring for a talk about healthy food and exercise habits.

The percentage of students participating in the breakfast program has risen from about 10 percent to 12 percent three years ago to between 35 percent and 40 percent, said Hamilton Township School District director of food services Bill Trackman, who has pushed for more breakfasts. “It’s awesome,” he said.

Some students qualify for free meals. Students who qualify for reduced-price meals pay $0.30, while others are charged $1.25. The balance of the cost is paid by federal and state reimbursements, Trackman said, because the district schools offer the mandatory nutritional program. That includes a 1/2 cup of grain, 1/2 cup of fruit, 1/2 pint of milk of 1 percent or less fat content.

About 45 percent of the district’s students are eligible for free or reduced-price breakfast, which is slightly less than the Atlantic County median, according to state education statistics compiled by the Food Research and Action Center.

Fully 45 percent of Hamilton Township students do eat breakfast at the schools, fourth most in Atlantic County.

Nationally, the center ranked New Jersey 48th for its participation in the school breakfast program, which offers federal reimbursement.

At Hess, Colleen Csaszar, the lead cook, said staff prepares 770 meals early, before the students arrive. At about 9 a.m., the food is wheeled out of the cafeteria to tables set up outside the classrooms. Teachers carry them into their rooms.

Before the breakfast program started several years ago, children who missed breakfast had to wait until 11 a.m. for the first lunch. Csaszar said the effect is notable. “Their train of thought is better now that they’ve had something in their little tummies.”

Outside a classroom Friday, one tray included small containers of 1 percent milk. Another tray held small disposable bowls of Cocoa Puffs, Rice Crispies, Golden Grahams, Kix and Honey Nut Cheerios, with the graham cracker cookies and grape juice nearby. One day a week, typically Wednesdays, staff prepares a hot meal that may include waffles or cinnamon sticks.

The school is well suited for the push, Trackman said. The classrooms have sinks to dump out milk and tile floors that don’t soak up spills. There are elevators that allow staff to move the food to the school’s upper levels.

Ultimately, Trackman said the award is gratifying, but the greater reward is knowing the students eat well. “Now the kids get the Jets (player) visit,” he said. “It’s great for the kids and great for the community.”

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