N.J. better than Pa. in feeding children breakfast

Posted: February 01, 2014

New Jersey has shown marked increases in getting low-income children to eat breakfast in school, while Pennsylvania has demonstrated slow improvement in serving the meals.

That's the word from the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), which released its School Breakfast Scorecard this month. Based in Washington, FRAC is the leading antihunger advocacy group in America.

Throughout the country, school-breakfast participation by low-income students is calculated by measuring the number of children eating breakfast compared with those eating lunch. That's because many low-income students typically will eat lunch but skip breakfast.

New Jersey jumped from about 41 breakfast students per 100 lunch students to more than 45 breakfast students between the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years, FRAC reported.

The state improved its U.S. ranking in breakfast participation from 46th to 37th, FRAC showed.

Although Pennsylvania recorded a slight increase in the number of students participating in breakfast - from 44 breakfast students per 100 lunch students to 45 - its ranking declined from 38th to 39th.

"That's because other states, like New Jersey, are moving up faster," said Julie Zaebst, policy manager at the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.

In New Jersey, the Newark School District has more than 91 breakfast students per 100 lunch students, ranking the city No. 2 in the nation, behind Boise, Idaho.

The FRAC study shows districts that do best with breakfast are the ones offering the meal after school begins, said Madeleine Levin, senior policy analyst with FRAC.

Such districts register 70 percent to 80 percent breakfast participation, Levin said. Those that offer breakfast in their cafeterias before normal school hours have only a 30 percent participation rate, she added, explaining that it's harder to get children to school earlier than normal to eat.

In a FRAC ranking of major school districts, Philadelphia is 29th of 63 in its ratio of low-income students eating breakfast vs. lunch. More than 58 percent of low-income lunch-eaters are having breakfast in city schools.

Zaebst said Gov. Corbett met with advocates in October to launch the Pennsylvania School Breakfast Challenge.

School breakfast and lunch, paid for by federal dollars, are universally considered to be vital for health and learning.

There is no federal law requiring states to provide low-income students with meals, said Levin.

However, New Jersey requires all schools with 20 percent or more students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals to serve breakfast, Levin said. Schools with 5 percent or more students eligible for free or reduced-price meals must provide lunch.

Pennsylvania has no law mandating that meals be served, Levin said, adding that school districts decide their own needs.

Students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals if their families are at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, that equates to an annual salary of roughly $43,500.

Both Pennsylvania and New Jersey are illustrative of "a lot of positive motion toward serving breakfast in schools," said Kathryn Hoy, manager of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs.

Throughout America, 10.8 million low-income children participated in school breakfast on an average day during the 2012-13 school year, an increase of more than 300,000 from the previous year, FRAC reported.

There are wide disparities in the number of students who get served these meals in schools, advocates say.

For example, a study last year by Public Citizens for Children and Youth, a Philadelphia children's advocacy group, showed that 90 percent or more of the students in some city schools eat breakfast, whereas as few as 12 percent eat breakfast in other schools.



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