The number of low-income children getting free breakfast in school crept up to more than 225,000 in 2016, according to the annual report released Thursday by Advocates for Children of New Jersey.
But that still represents only 44 percent of all eligible children in the state, leaving almost 320,000 eligible children not served.
This year, ACNJ and its Food for Thought Campaign will expand its efforts to promote not just breakfast in school but also summer, after-school and dinner food programs.
Representatives of ACNJ will be at the Boys and Girls Club of Atlantic City on Thursday to discuss the report and “the next frontier” of after-school meals. The club offers a snack and dinner to participating students through the federal At-Risk Afterschool Meals Program, which reimburses schools or community groups just more than $3 per dinner.
Nancy Parello, project manager for Food for Thought, said Atlantic City was chosen this year because of its success not only with breakfast but with school and community efforts to offer summer and after-school meals.
She said public awareness of and media attention on the issue of childhood hunger and the importance of breakfast have spurred more schools to offer the meal over the past five years.
Since the project began in 2010, the number of eligible children receiving breakfast has almost doubled from 123,300 in 2010. But, she said, the most rapid growth has been in large, urban districts that have the most children, so annual growth is now slowing.
In the first five years of the project, the percentage of eligible children receiving breakfast rose from 30 percent to 43 percent. This year’s increase was only about 1 percent.
“We really succeeded in getting the big districts on board,” Parello said. “It’s actually easier to implement in the small districts, but it’s harder to get them on board. They have to have the will.”
The group will also target high schools this year. Parello named Atlantic City as one of the few high schools in the state successfully implementing breakfast.
The annual report highlights districts that are doing well in providing breakfast and some the group believes could do more.
Six local districts are included in the report’s top 20 in which at least 50 percent of children are eligible for the federal free meal program. They are the Atlantic Community Charter School, Atlantic City public schools, Egg Harbor City, Cape May, Lower Township and Fairfield Township in Cumberland County. More than 75 percent of eligible children in those districts are getting breakfast.
Seven local districts also were included in the top 20 districts in which fewer than 50 percent of children are eligible for the free meal program: Estell Manor, Hamilton Township, West Cape May, Lower Cape May Regional, Deerfield Township, Greenwich Township and the Compass Academy Charter School in Vineland.
Districts the report calls “underachievers” include North Wildwood, Brigantine and Somers Point. Those districts have at least half of all children eligible for free meals, but less than 30 percent of them are getting breakfast. Brigantine and North Wildwood just exceeded the 50 percent eligibility rate last year, reflecting the still struggling economy of the region.
Parello said the most successful programs offer breakfast “after the bell” as part of the school day. Several districts, including Wildwood, Commercial Township and Fairfield Township, participate in the Community Eligibility Program, which provides free meals to all children because their rates of eligibility are so high.
Parello said ultimately it is the will of local school officials that determines how a breakfast program is offered and whether it is successful. She said school remains one of the most effective places to feed children.
“Some schools still resist it,” she said. “But we have to get meals to children when they are there.”