ATLANTIC CITY — Jackson Allen happily nibbled away at the chocolate muffin he chose for breakfast Tuesday morning as he chatted with friends in Jacquelyn Lee’s third-grade classroom at the Richmond Avenue School.

Jackson was alert and happy. Lee said the district’s “Breakfast after the Bell” program could explain why. Lee said that after eating, her students are more focused to learn.

“It’s a big difference when they have breakfast,” she said.

The Atlantic City School District has been serving “breakfast after the bell” for 14 years, Superintendent Barry Caldwell said.

“I’m going to be a little braggadocious and say we were ahead of the curve,” Caldwell told students, school officials and children’s advocacy groups during a recognition program for the district hosted by Hunger Free New Jersey and Advocates for Children of New Jersey.

The program Tuesday was also in celebration of a law passed in the spring that requires schools with more than 70 percent of students eligible for free and reduced lunch to serve breakfast after the school day begins. The law takes effect next fall.

Joining the celebration Tuesday was former Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Jason Avant, who praised Atlantic City for its efforts.

“Thank you for implementing this program here in Atlantic City, and for you guys being a shining light for other schools in New Jersey and hopefully around the country to get kids nourished so they can be better performers in the classroom and overall better citizens in our community,” Avant said.

Research through the years has shown a positive link between eating breakfast and educational success. Because of this, Hunger Free New Jersey and Advocates for Children of New Jersey have been pushing for implementation of breakfast after the bell. State law already requires any district with 20 percent or more students eligible for free and reduced meals to serve breakfast.

Adele LaTourette, director for Hunger Free New Jersey, formerly the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition, said that when she began in the campaign in 2011, New Jersey was nearly last in the country in serving breakfast to eligible students.

“We are 19th now in the nation. We are shooting for top 10. Hopefully with this legislation, we can get there,” she said.

According to the latest data compiled by Advocates for Children of New Jersey, 83 percent of Atlantic City students were eligible for free and reduced lunch in 2017 and 85 percent of those students received breakfast. Under the new law, Atlantic City and other districts with similarly high proportions of eligible students, such as Pleasantville and Egg Harbor City, would be required to offer “breakfast after the bell.”

Other districts not required to serve “breakfast after the bell” under the new law are trying other ways to increase participation. This year, the Greater Egg Harbor Regional High School District began making breakfast available for free to all students before homeroom begins at 7:45 a.m.

Superintendent John Keenan said the students are offered breakfast from carts when they walk into the building, as well as a full breakfast in the cafeteria.

“Our district made it a priority and school goal because nutrition and good eating habits are linked to appropriate energy levels to maximize learning,” he said.

According to 2017 data, 42 percent of the students in Greater Egg’s three high schools — Absegami, Oakcrest and Cedar Creek — were eligible for free and reduced breakfast and 27 percent participated in breakfast. Keenan said they have been seeing a steady increase in participation, with about 35 percent taking advantage of the program this week.

However, LaTourette said breakfast after the bell is more successful than offering a meal before the start of the day because you are ensuring that all students in the district have access to the breakfast options, not just the ones who show up early.

“We know breakfast after the bell works,” she said. “Your mother was right. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”

Contact: 609-272-7251 CLowe@pressofac.com Twitter @clairelowe

Staff Writer

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. I joined The Press in 2015. In 2013, I was awarded a NJPA award for feature writing as a reporter for The Current of Hamilton Township.

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