ATLANTIC CITY — Students got a lesson in the economics of school food service Monday.
And New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture Doug Fisher got some insight into what students think of the food during an early morning visit to Atlantic City High School to promote School Breakfast Week.
“Kindergartners can eat this size,” said senior Tori-Simone Smart-El, 18, holding up a single-serving box of cereal. “But it won’t fill us up. Everything is like a diet.”
This gave Fisher the opening to talk about the nutritional and caloric value in the packaged items, how they have to meet federal standards and also be something that companies can deliver to millions of students around the country.
“It gets very complex, and it starts with Congress, which pays for the program,” said Fisher of the federally funded free- and reduced-fee meal program, noting that what looks like a cookie — the oatmeal bar — is made with whole grains.
New Jersey has made tremendous strides in providing breakfast in school, ranking 23rd in the nation in 2015, compared with 46th in 2011. The N.J. Food for Thought Campaign has been promoting the morning meal and in particular breakfast offered during—rather than before— the school day starts.
In 2014-15, about 55 percent of New Jersey low-income students eligible for the federal meal program received breakfast in school, according to the Food Research and Action Center’s annual School Breakfast Scorecard released last month.
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Atlantic City was chosen for Fisher’s visit because it is one of the few high schools offering “breakfast after the bell.”
Joseph Masari, the school district’s food service manager, said about a half-dozen employees come in early to prepare bins of food that are delivered to homeroom classrooms. The menu varies and includes cereal, muffins, breakfast bagels, fresh fruit, juice and milk. Each meal must contain a grain, milk and two fruits to meet federal guidelines.
The school used to offer breakfast in the cafeteria. But only about 20 percent to 25 percent of students participated, even though as many as 80 percent were eligible for a free meal. Since the staff began serving it in the classroom, participation rates have jumped to more than 85 percent. Teachers get a daily sheet to track which students take a breakfast.
Students overall said having the meal delivered is convenient, but they do miss having the option of a hot breakfast.
Teacher Pam Lewis said the entire process typically takes about 15 minutes, and students eat while announcements are made.
Some students said they typically do not get breakfast, either because they are not hungry or eat at home. Some said it depends on what is offered.
Daniel Bell, 15, had high praise for the muffins.
“I just eat whatever they have,” said Jaquan Davila, 15, as he poured the 1 percent milk on his cereal.
Abdus Akbar, 16, asked why water is not one of the beverage options, noting that not everyone wants milk or juice.
Fisher reiterated that the meal is based on nutritional requirements.
Akbar said even at lunch, the students must take a complete meal, and he knows a lot of students who just eat the part they want, and throw away the rest.
The waste issue has become a concern as the federal government tightened regulations and called for more vegetables, fresh fruits and whole grains. Bread items from Pop-Tarts to pizza dough are now made from whole wheat, and cereals have reduced sugar to meet guidelines.
Rose Tricario, director of the Division of Food and Nutrition at the N.J. Department of Agriculture, which coordinates the meal program, said the comments showed her how they also need to focus on teaching students about the nutritional and caloric components of the meals as well as how it tastes.
“It’s not about eating a lot,” she said. “It’s about having the right components.”
Patricia Dombrowski, administrator of the Mid-Atlantic Region for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Services, said student feedback helps them address issues like portion sizes and menus.
Linda Parello, of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, which has played an active role in the Food for Thought Campaign, said now that more students are getting breakfast, they too want to focus more on the food itself. She said while breakfast cookies may not seem healthy, they are meeting guidelines and providing nutrition.
“We are going to focus on the content more,” she said. “But what they get here is still better than a Coke and Doritos from the corner bodega.”