Inquirer Editorial: Should add breakfast to schools' lesson plans

Michelle Obama shares a meal with school children in Virginia.
Michelle Obama shares a meal with school children in Virginia. (AP)
Posted: April 30, 2013

New Jersey ranks among the bottom states for school-breakfast participation. And when Garden State schools do serve breakfast, it's typically at the wrong time. That needs to change.

Across the state, 525 school districts provide the most important meal of the day to low-income students who otherwise might not get breakfast. But most serve breakfast before the first classes begin, and many students who can't get to school that early start the day hungry. Their learning often suffers as a result.

That's why it's important that a new campaign by Advocates for Children is successful. It encourages districts to serve breakfast "after the bell" for the first classes. The anti-hunger coalition is challenging New Jersey districts to increase the 35 percent of eligible children who received a free school breakfast last year.

The contest officially begins in September. Cash prizes, which can be used to purchase equipment such as serving carts, will be awarded to the six districts that show the most improvement. An NFL player will visit the North and South Jersey winners.

About 12 percent of the state's school districts, including Woodbury, have already adopted the "after the bell" model and serve breakfast, typically in the classroom, during the first few minutes of the school day. School officials say learning isn't disrupted.

Breakfast has become as much a necessity for learning as books and school supplies. Studies show students who eat breakfast perform better academically, have better attendance, make fewer visits to the school nurse, and have fewer disciplinary problems. "When schools do this, everybody wins," said Advocates for Children spokeswoman Nancy Parello.

The state now allows schools to count the breakfast period toward instructional time, eliminating a common reason that some schools were reluctant to serve breakfast after the day had started. Federal funds cover the cost of school breakfast, so serving it isn't a burden even for for cash-strapped districts like Camden's.

From start to finish, it only takes about 20 minutes to serve breakfast. Educators can even make that time part of their instructional period by reading aloud to younger students, letting students read quietly, or giving give them a math lesson such as counting calories in a meal.

Teachers today must expect that a significant number of their students will come to school too hungry to concentrate. As a result, schools must be prepared to feed children's minds and bodies.

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