Needy N.J. children find easier access to school breakfast

Doris Carpenter , chief education officer at D.U.E. Season, answers the morning riddle. "Many students had nothing to eat prior to school, but others ate breakfasts of potato chips [or] candy and soda," she said. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Doris Carpenter , chief education officer at D.U.E. Season, answers the morning riddle. "Many students had nothing to eat prior to school, but others ate breakfasts of potato chips [or] candy and soda," she said. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Posted: October 02, 2013

The blueberry muffins are Calvin Bell's favorites, but Monday's apple muffins, plus accompanying pears, clearly hit the spot for the Camden sixth grader and his classmates, who were tucking into their school-provided breakfasts served up during homeroom.

"A-OK," was Calvin's verdict. "Delicious."

Last year, his school, Camden's D.U.E. Season Charter School, greatly increased the number of students served the morning meal, according to a new report, by turning to "breakfast after the bell" - offering free and reduced-priced breakfast after the school day's start instead of before it.

Calvin, 11, gave the practice a thumbs-up, too.

"When you don't eat, you concentrate on your stomach," he said. "You're not concentrating on your schoolwork, and you'll never get anywhere."

That's the message behind Advocates for Children of New Jersey's third annual school breakfast report, released Tuesday.

Although New Jersey still lags behind most other states in low-income students being served breakfast - missing the opportunity to feed hundreds of thousands of children and collect federal reimbursement - the number of eligible students receiving breakfast in the state rose 35 percent from 2010 to 2013. The program now serves just over 183,000 of the half-million students eligible.

"Not only are these districts feeding more children, addressing childhood hunger, and overcoming a major obstacle to learning, they are also bringing back more federal dollars to feed New Jersey schoolchildren," the report states.

For 2014, federal assistance is expected to rise to $66 million from $56 million in 2012.

Locally, Camden County's overall school breakfast rate rose to 38 percent of those eligible in April 2013 from 33 percent the year before. Burlington County's rate held steady at 27 percent, as did Gloucester County's at 33 percent. Individual districts, however, improved their participation rates.

Need, however, has not remained static. Over the last three years, the number of students eligible for free or subsidized school meals rose 12 percent, according to the report.

Report author Nancy Parello said that in the last few years, the number of households without enough food grew by 40 percent, and the number of children receiving food stamps rose 80 percent.

The nonprofit Food Research and Action Center's annual school breakfast scorecard put New Jersey near the bottom of the list - 46th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia in 2011-12 - in terms of providing school breakfast. That was a slight improvement over the previous year's 48th slot. Pennsylvania's rank fell from 36th to 38th.

Advocates for Children credited switching to "breakfast after the bell" for the gains the districts in New Jersey have made.

" 'Breakfast after the bell' works," said Cecilia Zalkind, the group's executive director. She said administrators who balked at the change, citing logistical worries, found their concerns were for naught.

D.U.E. Season was one of six schools or districts statewide that more than tripled their school breakfast participation. In one year, D.U.E. Season went from 17 percent of eligible students served to 87 percent. The school also serves lunch and dinner.

"Many students had nothing to eat prior to school, but others ate breakfasts of potato chips [or] candy and soda," said the school chief education officer, Doris Carpenter.

Some students couldn't make it to the before-school breakfast program. As a result, Carpenter said, there were children who couldn't focus on schoolwork, and who were lethargic or irritable.

After a year of "breakfast after the bell," she said, there has been a reduction in student suspensions and fights, increased attendance, and more students improving their performance on state tests.

Last spring, the state placed the charter on probation for inadequate student performance. D.U.E has instituted various changes.

Hunger is but one of the struggles Camden children face, D.U.E. staff say.

"We have kids who are getting other siblings ready for school because their parents work overnight," said Olivia Glenn, school spokeswoman. "They may not be in a stable home environment."

Every day during homeroom, the students practice Morning Splendor - an activity such as journaling or exercise meant to help them shake off whatever distractions may have followed them from outside school. Then they have breakfast.

Franyeli Peralta, 11, is partial to the egg sandwiches and corn muffins. She said she didn't always make it to the before-school breakfast program.

"I would get there late, and I wouldn't be able to think in class," the sixth grader said.

Calvin Bell, who aspires to a career in politics, is another program booster.

"I think it opens a new life," he said. "Before, when we didn't have the breakfasts, [students] weren't getting the healthy nutrition we need. People used to bring in food from the corner store."

Healthy foods are key, he said.

"If you eat those things," he said, "you will have a healthy life and succeed in what you want."

Calvin, good news. On Monday, blueberry muffins are on the menu.


rgiordano@phillynews.com

856-779-3893 @ritagiordano

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