School districts in Cumberland, Cape May and Atlantic County are leading the way in giving breakfast to children in school, according to the third New Jersey School Breakfast Report released today.

Cumberland County ranked first in reaching the most students eligible for the federal free and reduced-fee meal program in April 2013, with 57 percent of eligible children receiving breakfast, according to the report. Cape May ranks third at 50 percent and Atlantic County fourth at 46 percent. Ocean County ranks 12th at 35 percent.

Statewide, the number of children receiving breakfast jumped 35 percent over the last three years, from about 136,000 in 2009-10 to almost 184,000 in 2012-13. Statewide, about 36 percent of all eligible children got breakfast in the month surveyed.

Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, a member of the N.J. Food for Thought School Breakfast Campaign, credited the increase to schools providing breakfast as part of the school day rather than requiring students to arrive early. Many also offer it in class, making it easily accessible.

“Districts are stepping up,” she said. “We’ve made real progress.”

She said they have been focusing on districts with a high percentage of children eligible for the meal program. She said the logistics and cost of offering breakfast is more of a challenge in wealthier districts with only a small number of children in the federal meal program.

Nationally, New Jersey ranks 46th in the percentage of eligible children who receive breakfast, according to the Food Research and Action Group’s 2012 report, an improvement from 48th the year before. Its data show about 41 percent of students eligible for breakfast actually got it.

Locally nine school districts ranked in the state school breakfast report as “breakfast champions” as high-poverty districts that are providing breakfast to a large number of students.

Egg Harbor City ranked second in that group, reaching 88 percent of eligible students during April 2013, up from just 11 percent in March 2012.

With almost 80 percent of all students eligible for free meals, in 2012-13 the district started providing free breakfast to all students, serving it in the classroom right after the morning bell. Prior to that children had to arrive early and go to the cafeteria to get breakfast. The district in one year went from being an “underachiever” in the report, to a champion.

Egg Harbor City Community School Principal Jack Griffith said the change wasn’t as difficult as they thought it would be, and helps set the tone for the school day. Breakfast is served at 8:15 a.m., and is done and cleaned up by 8:40 a.m. Students in a Workplace Readiness Skills program help with cleanup and recycling. The typical breakfast is quick — cereal, milk and juice — though occasionally students are offered a breakfast burrito or pancakes.

“We dragged our feet about doing it, too,” Griffith said, citing statewide concerns about the time it would take or the potential for a mess. He said they took one minute off each class period, but breakfast seems to have helped the school day get settled more quickly. Plus, fewer children arrive late.

“They don’t want to miss breakfast,” he said. “It’s a nice way to start the school day.”

Several other top-performing districts also provide breakfast in class or as part of the school day. Among the top 20 performers with high rates of low-income students were Atlantic City and Pleasantville in Atlantic County, Wildwood, Lower Township and Woodbine in Cape May County, and Fairfield Township, Vineland and the Vineland Public Charter School in Cumberland County.

Monica Dannenberger, principal at the Gloria Sabater Elementary School in Vineland, is quoted in the report as saying that breakfast has made students more content and given staff peace of mind in knowing children are getting some good nutrition.

“You don t have students crying in kindergarten that they are hungry,” she said.

Other local districts reaching more than 50 percent of eligible students include Folsom in Atlantic County, Bridgeton, Greenwich Township, Lawrence Township, and Upper Deerfield Township in Cumberland County, and Eagleswood and Little Egg Harbor Township in southern Ocean County. Galloway Township was cited as a district making progress, going from 29 to 33 percent in one year.

The report notes that districts are eligible for federal reimbursements for every breakfast they serve. For 2013-2014 districts are expected to collect $66 million, a $10 million increase over 2011-12 according to the report, which breaks down the potential reimbursements by district.

In Atlantic County, school districts could get an additional $4 million if all eligible children got breakfast. Egg Harbor Township alone could get an additional $842,000. The report shows that 42 percent of all children in the district are eligible for free breakfast, but only 18 percent receive it, leaving 2,635 eligible children unfed. District food service personnel could not be reached for comment Monday.

Contact Diane D'Amico:

609-272-7241

Senior copy editor for the Press of Atlantic City. Have worked as a reporter, copy editor and news editor with the paper since 1985. A graduate of the University of Delaware.