PLEASANTVILLE — It’s the end of the school year at the Leeds Avenue School, and a first-grade student has chosen popcorn chicken, green beans and milk for lunch. Although her tray is full, she says she is still hungry.
For students like this, the last day of school can mean uncertainty.
Advocates say a new package of laws aiming to increase participation in federally funded lunch and breakfast programs in schools may help bridge the gap for students living in poverty.
The bills, signed by Gov. Phil Murphy last month, require qualifying schools to serve summer meal sites and breakfast after the school day starts, often called Breakfast After the Bell. They also require schools that don’t participate in the community eligibility provision (CEP), but have at least one school that qualifies, to explain why.
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Breakfast After the Bell has proved to be successful at increasing the number of students eating breakfast by serving the students after the school day starts, as opposed to offering meals prior to the start of the day.
“It’s successful because when you look at implementing any school meal program, if the kids aren’t there to eat it, you’re not going to be maximizing participation in the program,” said Adele LaTourette, director of the NJ Anti-Hunger Coalition.
More than half of the students in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties are eligible for free and reduced-price meals through the national school lunch and breakfast programs, but not all of them are taking advantage. Data from the annual Kids Count survey show 51 percent of eligible students in those counties are receiving breakfast and 83 percent are receiving lunch.
Those districts with at least 40 percent of eligible students can apply for CEP, where all the students in the district receive meals free of charge and the district is reimbursed through federal funding. Some districts can get up to 100 percent funding, but others receive only a portion.
Wildwood is part of the CEP and serves Breakfast After the Bell. Superintendent J. Kenyon Kummings said CEP has been beneficial for his district.
He said financially, it made sense for Wildwood, and it reduces any stigma attached to government assistance.
“There’s an element of pride to it for some families where they may be eligible but they don’t want to take advantage of it,” Kummings said. “If this resource is available, it’s kind of a question of why wouldn’t you take advantage of it.”
In addition to breakfast and lunch, Wildwood is now serving dinner as well and has about 200 students who participate.
“I’ve had students we’ve caught licking empty potato chip bags,” Kummings said. “How are you supposed to move on when you have this constant hunger drawing focus from you?”
Sodexo’s Purvesh Patel, the food service director at Vineland Public Schools, said his district would not benefit from CEP participation.
Patel said CEP is based off the percentage of parents receiving government assistance as opposed to those who qualify through the paper application process. He said the district would not be reimbursed enough to cover the cost of providing lunch and breakfast to all its students for free.
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“Parents ask me how come you’re not CEP, they don’t realize that the state goes off of directly certified students,” Patel said. “When you fill in the numbers at the end of the day, the district would have to contribute more into the program than they already are financially.”
At the Leeds Avenue School, Principal Howard Johnson said about 90 percent of his students qualify for free and reduced-priced meals, and the district does not participate in CEP.
Johnson said he has not read the full package of legislation, but he knows why it’s being pushed.
“A lot of it has to do with single-parent homes and parents who have to work to make ends meet,” Johnson said Monday.
He said the district has been trying to increase participation in the school breakfast program.
“It’s important because of our expectations, in terms of academics, which stress (for) them to be prepared. But without a breakfast in the morning, they’re unable to produce or be productive,” Johnson said.
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Jarvis Richardson, of Sodexo, general manager of the food service program for Pleasantville, said the district has been trying to increase participation in its breakfast and lunch programs.
He said the legislation will be helpful for students and school districts.
“I think it’s an opportunity for the food service department and faculty and staff to begin to work together to begin to increase participation for students,” he said.