A statewide campaign to provide breakfast in school to low-income children is paying off, according to a national report released Wednesday. But New Jersey still ranks almost last nationally in the percentage of schools that offer both breakfast and lunch through the subsidized National School Lunch Program.

The annual School Breakfast Program report by the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center found that in 2012-13 about 45 percent of low-income children in New Jersey who were eligible for the free or reduced-fee lunch program also received breakfast each day.

That represented an increase of 10 percent, or about 18,600 students. Statewide, almost 201,000 low-income students received breakfast in school each day. Districts get federal reimbursements for the meals.

The increase moved New Jersey from 46th to 37th in the nation in providing breakfast to low-income children. That’s the third-largest increase among the states.

Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey and co-chairwoman of the NJ Food for Thought School Breakfast Campaign, was thrilled with the progress since the campaign’s launch in 2011 and commended school officials for their efforts to expand breakfast programs.

The third New Jersey School Breakfast Report released by ACNJ in October found Cumberland County reached the most students eligible for the federal free and reduced-fee meal program in April 2013, with 57 percent of eligible children receiving breakfast. Cape May ranked third at 50 percent, Atlantic County fourth at 46 percent and Ocean County 12th at 35 percent.

Statewide in 2012-13, about 443,000 of the state’s almost 1.4 million students participated in the federal National School Lunch Program. Begun in 1946, the program provided $11.6 billion in reimbursements to school districts across the nation in 2011-12, according to federal data.

The Food Research and Action Center report says if New Jersey could increase breakfast participation from 45 percent to 70 percent, or an additional 109,000 students, districts could get almost $28 million in additional federal funds.

Nancy Parello, communications director for ACNJ, said they expect even more progress this school year because several large, urban districts including Jersey City, Trenton and Camden have been working to expand school-breakfast programs.

“This could be a banner year,” she said. “It is snowballing as schools realize they can do it.”

The meal program is voluntary. About 74 percent of New Jersey schools participate in both the lunch and breakfast programs, ranking the state 50th in the nation. The top-ranked states are Delaware and Hawaii, where all schools participate.

New Jersey’s rank may reflect the economic diversity of the state; wealthy districts may not offer breakfast because they have few NSLP-eligible children. The FRAC report shows only about 15 percent of students who did receive breakfast in 2012-13 paid for it. The majority of recipients, 77 percent, were eligible for free breakfast, and eight percent paid the reduced fee.

Contact Diane D'Amico:

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