Atlantic City High School breakfast

As part of the Atlantic City High School breakfast program, a bin of breakfast items, such as cereal, milk, and juice, is provided for each first period class, including Pamela Lewis' Radio broadcasting class. March 7, 2016. (The Press of Atlantic City/ Viviana Pernot)

Almost 268,000 low-income children in New Jersey got free or reduced-price breakfast in the last school year, a 6 percent increase from the year before, according to a national report.

But breakfast is still not readily available to every child eligible to receive it.

The annual School Breakfast Scorecard, released Tuesday by the Food Research and Action Center, shows New Jersey improved its national ranking from 23rd in 2014-15 to 19th in 2015-16.

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Statewide, almost 59 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-fee lunch got breakfast last year, up from 55 percent the year before. The top ranked state, West Virginia, fed breakfast to 85 percent of eligible children.

The improvement shows efforts by a coalition of state groups to improve school breakfast participation have paid off. The state ranked 50th in the 2002 scorecard.

Adele LaTourette, director of the N.J. Anti-Hunger Coalition, said while great leaps have been made in large districts with large numbers of eligible students, the goal now is to reach smaller districts and high schools, which face more challenges.

“We do continue to improve, but at a slower pace,” LaTourette said.

According to the report, 2,104 of 2,629 schools participated in the school breakfast program last year, still ranking the state 50th in that category.

The coalition has had great success with “breakfast after the bell” programs, which incorporate breakfast into the school day as part of homeroom or morning announcements.

The state Senate on Monday approved establishing a revolving fund in the Department of Agriculture to allocate federal and state funds to increase participation in breakfast after the bell programs through small grants. No set dollar amount was allocated.

“Grab and go” kiosks have worked with older students, as have “second chance” breakfasts a little later in the morning for students who must arrive at school very early.

Atlantic City was cited by the state Department of Agriculture last year for its high school breakfast program, which delivers food to classrooms.

But, LaTourette said, success means finding what works for each district and school. She said while schools with at least 20 percent of children in the federal free lunch program must also provide breakfast to low-income children, how that program functions will vary.

School districts are reimbursed by the federal government for the free and reduced-fee meals, but when only a small number of children participate, it can be difficult for a district to break even on the cost.

In 2015-16 districts received $1.66 for every free breakfast served, $1.33 for every reduced-fee breakfast and 29 cents for every paid breakfast. Severe need districts with at least 40 percent of students eligible for the subsidized meals got $1.99 for every free meal and $1.69 for every reduced-fee meal.

Districts also can charge other students, but most still eat breakfast at home. The report shows only about 50,000 students, or 16 percent of all participating children, paid for breakfast last year.

“It’s not as easy to offer breakfast when you have fewer eligible children,” LaTourette said. “But we are saying to districts, ‘Let’s work together to find ways to reach more kids.’”

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