N.J. lags in serving breakfast at school

High-poverty districts, including 7 in S.J., trail most states in offering the morning meal.

Posted: October 04, 2012

New Jersey saw a 21 percent rise in the number of low-income students who get school breakfasts, but it still lags far behind most other states, a report released Tuesday found.

In South Jersey, seven charter schools or districts were among 64 high-poverty districts statewide where less than 31 percent of eligible students receive subsidized school breakfasts, according to the study by Advocates for Children of New Jersey, a nonprofit child research and action organization.

On the plus side locally, the Woodlynne school district and Camden's Promise Charter School, both in Camden County, were two of 13 schools listed last year that worked their way off this year. Woodlynne went from 28 percent of the eligible students getting breakfast to 34 percent. Camden's Promise rose from 24 percent to 38 percent participation.

Overall, the findings, contained in the advocacy group's second annual school breakfast report, offered some encouraging news, according to executive director Cecilia Zalkind.

"When children are hungry, they struggle to learn," Zalkind said. "Expanding school breakfast participation, then, significantly leverages the substantial investment we make in public education."

Still, the report makes clear that the state's schools have room for much improvement.

Only 35 percent of the 471,714 children eligible for free or reduced-price breakfast in March 2012, when the latest survey was conducted, receive the morning meal at school.

According to a report the anti-hunger Food Research and Action Center cited in the advocates' breakfast study, New Jersey ranked 48th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia in low-income student participation in the government-subsidized free or reduced breakfast programs. Pennsylvania ranks 36th.

Issuing the breakfast report is part of a continuing campaign by Advocates for Children to get more schools to be more active participants in breakfast programs. That includes an approach the group called "breakfast after the bell" - feeding children after the school day has commenced, including in classrooms.

In January, New Jersey Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf encouraged school districts to serve breakfast after school started and to be creative about it. Possibilities included brown-bag breakfasts or offering a second shift for students who missed the first meal.

"It's about changing mind-sets," said Advocates for Children spokeswoman Nancy Parello.

District concerns include cleanup, cutting into instructional time, or expense, but Parello said none of those is insurmountable. Plus, the more children that districts serve, the higher their government reimbursement.

The report highlighted districts with the most active breakfast programs, including, locally, the Beverly City school district in Burlington County and Camden's Pride Charter School.

In Beverly City, 75 percent of the eligible children received breakfast. At Camden's Pride, the rate was 73 percent.

The seven South Jersey schools or charters with low participation rates were Brooklawn (15 percent), D.U.E. Season Charter in Camden (17 percent), Camden Academy Charter (18 percent), Willingboro (23 percent), Mount Holly (24 percent), Burlington City (26 percent), and Lindenwold (27 percent).

Lindenwold's business administrator, Kathleen Huder, said her district had found that more students participated when hot food was offered. So at the end of the last school year, the district increased hot breakfasts from two days a week to three, and then from three days to four.

"For the month of September 2012, we have seen over a 12 percent increase in participation [over a year ago] and are hopeful that this trend will continue," Huder said.

Despite the high concentration of poor families in Camden, only 39 percent of the eligible children in the city's school district get breakfast, according to the report.

Valeria Galarza, program manager with the New Jersey Partnership for Healthy Kids in Camden County, said her organization was working with the district at Camden City's Forest Hill Elementary School to increase participation.

"In general, school districts have a hard time working with the logistics of implementation," Galarza said. "What they fail to realize is once you have [a program] in place, it's pretty simple."

Charter schools were disproportionately represented on the list of 64 low-participation schools. There were 31 charters on the list, or 48 percent.

Parello said Advocates for Children had been working with the New Jersey Charter Schools Association to increase charter participation in providing breakfasts.

Contact staff writer Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841, rgiordano@phillynews.com or on Twitter @ritagiordano.

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