A group of Democratic state legislators has introduced a package of bills designed to increase the number of low-income children who get breakfast in school and encourage the use of local produce in school cafeterias.
Supporters applauded the bills’ intent, but some expressed concerns about how they might be implemented and the potential cost to districts. Some also questioned a bill that would let a school deny meals to a child whose parents fail to pay their child’s lunch bill.
A bill requiring the state to encourage districts to offer breakfast, and specifically promote “Breakfast After the Bell” programs is based on surveys showing more students participate if breakfast is included in the school day than if they have to arrive early.
Nancy Parello, spokeswoman for Advocates for Children of New Jersey, testified at a hearing before the Assembly Women and Children Committee that including breakfast as part of the school day has been the most critical factor in increasing participation.
New Jersey improved from 46th to 37th in the nation in the percentage of students receiving breakfast in 2012-13, according to an annual School Breakfast Report issued by the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center.
State Agriculture Secretary Douglas H. Fisher said this year about 255,000 children are getting breakfast each day. That is an increase of almost 37,000 students, or 15 percent, from last year, according to Department of Education data, with 1,957 schools offering breakfast this school year. Fisher said participation increased more than 16 percent each of the previous two years.
But a bill that would lower the requirement for districts to offer breakfast from those that have at least 20 percent of children in the federal free lunch program to five percent raised some concerns about whether districts could afford the cost.
Sharon Seyler of the New Jersey School Boards Association said if too small a number of students got breakfast, the district would not be able to cover the cost of providing it. Food service programs are expected to be financially self-sustaining. Districts are reimbursed $1.58 for each free breakfast and $1.28 for each reduced fee breakfast they serve.
A third bill would require school districts to notify parents before denying a child lunch because their meal charges were in arrears. The bill would require the parent be notified and given 10 days to pay the bill. If not paid, a second notice would be sent saying the child would not be served beginning one week from the date of the second notice.
Representatives for the Advocates for Children of New Jersey and the New Jersey Hunger Coalition said they understand the financial burden on a district if parents do not pay, but they opposed any bill that might deny a hungry child a meal.
Adele LaTourette, from the Anti-Hunger Coalition, said that as food stamp allocations are being reduced, and demands at food banks are rising, parents are making tough decisions about what they can pay for.
“Not feeding a child should not be an option,” she said.
Advocates said districts should make an effort to see if the child is eligible for the free meal program.
The non-payment problem has increased since the recession, but local school food service directors have said they will continue to feed a child, but will limit their choices to either a cheese or peanut-butter sandwich.
Another bill, co-sponsored by Bob Andrzejczak, D Cape May, Atlantic, Cumberland, would have the state set up a website to serve as a clearinghouse for New Jersey farmers to provide produce and dairy products to school meal programs.
Throughout the hearing speakers said different breakfast delivery methods may work better in different districts, and there is some evidence that breakfast has improved student performance. A school breakfast summit on March 27 in Trenton will help districts develop a program that fits with their schedule. Parello said most districts that made breakfast part of the school day integrated it into a homeroom period so it did not interfere with instructional time.
Millville was cited by speakers as a district effectively offering a fairly elaborate breakfast.
Linda Polhamus, cafeteria manager at the Mt. Pleasant School in Millville, said in a later interview that breakfast is offered before school in the cafeteria and about half of the students participate. The menu typically features cereal, but the staff will also offer pancakes, french toast sticks and egg sandwiches. Students also get milk, juice and fruit. She said since the cafeteria is also the school gym, if a child arrives late, they are allowed to eat in the school office before going to class.
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