Back in 2011, New Jersey schools were doing a lousy job of getting free and reduced-price breakfasts to the students who qualified for them. The state ranked 46th in providing free breakfasts, with only 28 percent of low-income students receiving them.

So students from poorer families, who already faced their share of challenges, were up against one more obstacle - trying to solve equations or conjugate verbs on empty stomachs.

But in the three years since then, educators in the state have done a better job providing subsidized breakfasts. The state now ranks 37th in the nation, providing breakfasts to 41 percent of eligible students, according to the NJ Food for Thought School Breakfast Campaign, a coalition of anti-hunger and youth-advocacy groups.

And some of the most successful school breakfast programs are in South Jersey. Cumberland County and Cape May County rank first and second in the state for reaching - and feeding - eligible students. Atlantic County ranks seventh.

That's good news. Eating breakfast helps students concentrate and improves memory functions. A nutritious breakfast can also encourage students to develop good eating habits and help fight childhood obesity and all of its associated health problems.

Of course, while reaching 41 percent of qualified students is a big step forward, it still means that almost six out of 10 students who should be getting free and reduced-price breakfasts aren't.

Advocates for Children of New Jersey says that means 300,000 children in the state may still be missing out on breakfast each morning. So there's plenty of room for improvement.

The South Jersey schools that have done the best job of providing breakfasts have used some innovative approaches that could be a model for the rest of the state. In some schools with a high percentage of eligible students, every student is offered breakfast. Some districts have found success by giving students time to eat breakfast as part of the regular school day, a program known as "breakfast after the bell." And others have found that portable, grab-and-go breakfasts or foods that kids can pocket and eat later in the day have boosted participation.

Increasing participation in free-breakfast programs is an important part of efforts to increase the success of low-income students, because it's hard to be at your best when you're hungry.

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