In 2010-11, fewer than one of every three students in the Egg Harbor City schools who was eligible for a free breakfast actually received one.
Since almost 80 percent of the students in the district are eligible for the free meal, district officials last year tried out several different systems to see if they could improve participation. .
This year, they began offering breakfast to every child in the district for free, including in the daily homeroom period, which was extended by a few minutes. The results show more than 80 percent of students are eating breakfast in school every day this year.
“Before, the children would stay outside to play, then not have time for breakfast,” said Adrienne Shulby, principal of the Charles L. Spragg School. “Then they would be hungry and not feel well in class, and we’d be sending them down to the nurse to get something to eat.”
Advocates for Children of New Jersey released its second Annual School Breakfast Report Tuesday showing that statewide, 20 percent more children, about 28,000 students, did get breakfast in school in 2011-12 than the year before.
Executive Director Cecilia Zalkind said she believes last year’s report and its campaign for breakfast participation has raised awareness and pushed more districts to pay attention to breakfast, especially for poor children who may have had little to eat for dinner.
“There’s still quite a way to go,” she said, noting that statewide, only about 35 percent of the more than 470,000 children eligible for free or reduced-price breakfast received it in March 2012. But, she said, schools are learning how to serve breakfast more quickly and efficiently, so she is hoping that message will spread.
“The three biggest issues still are when to serve it, where to serve it and how to clean up,” she said. Making breakfast part of the school day, and letting students eat in their classroom has been shown to be the most effective method. Some schools deliver breakfast to the classrooms, others let students “grab and go,” which involves taking a bagged breakfast from the cafeteria to class.
Several local districts are on the report’s top 20 list, including Wildwood, which ranked third in the state with 88 percent of students getting breakfast. Others in the top group were Lower Township with 78 percent participation, Lawrence Township in Cumberland County with 76 percent, the Vineland Charter School with 70 percent, Atlantic City with 64 percent and the Vineland School District with 63 percent.
Lower Township also serves breakfast in the classroom, Food Service Director Robert Morris said. Breakfast is simple, a choice of low-sugar, whole grain cereals, milk, juice and fruit, which are easy to eat and clean up. The district also has about 80 percent of students eligible for the free or reduce-fee meal program, and offers breakfast to all students for free.
“They do ask for the sugary cereals, but they eat what we offer,” he said.
School districts with at least 20 percent of children eligible for the free and reduced-fee lunch program, about 400 districts statewide, are required to serve breakfast.
Zalkind said since districts get reimbursed by the federal government for children in the meal program, there is no reason not to try to offer breakfast. The report shows that if every eligible child got breakfast, school districts in Atlantic County would get an additional $4.2 million. In 2011-12 the participation rate was 39 percent.
In Cape May and Cumberland counties, where more than half of eligible children are getting breakfast, the extra reimbursement would be $493,000 and $2.5 respectively. Only 30 percent of eligible Ocean County children are getting breakfast, and districts could get an extra $3.5 million if every eligible child participated.
Zalkind said part of last year’s increase in participation may be due to an increase in the number of financially struggling families. Students whose families are eligible for food stamps are automatically eligible for the free meal program.
Ventnor saw a 10 percentage point increase in the number of children getting breakfast last year, from 28 percent to 38 percent. Food Service Director Theresa Cohen said the number of students eligible because their families receive food stamps doubled last year with more than 60 percent of the students in the district now eligible for either free or reduced-price meals.
The district follows the “grab and go” system where students pick up the breakfast and take it to class. Menu choices vary and include cereal, bagels with cream cheese, and yogurt and a muffin.
“I really believe the increase in participation is due to the economy,” Cohen said. “We’re still serving the same menu. And even if they are paying, where else can you get a filling breakfast for $1.40.”
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