About 250,000 students in New Jersey eat school-provided breakfast, up 16 percent from last year, Agriculture Secretary Douglas H. Fisher told the Assembly Women and Children Committee. In 2013, 500,000 New Jersey students were eligible for free or reduced-price breakfasts, according to an October report by Advocates of Children of New Jersey.
Despite recent gains - the state ranks 37th on the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center's annual school breakfast scorecard, up from 46th in 2013 - the breakfast program serves far fewer students than the 650,000 who eat school-provided lunches.
"We still have a ways to go," Fisher said.
The disparity, in part, arises out of timing. All students are at school during the lunch period, while breakfast is frequently served before school starts.
To that end, the committee unanimously advanced a bill that would encourage the state to work with schools to establish breakfast programs in which meals would be served at the beginning of first-period class. Some schools already use this "breakfast after the bell" program.
Supporters said the program does not take away from instruction time, since teachers can use the opportunity to talk about nutrition. Moreover, students have trouble concentrating on empty stomachs. "We know when they don't have breakfast, they don't perform near as well," Fisher said.
Another barrier to eligible students' receiving school meals is the stigma of poverty that some school districts associate with the programs, Fisher said. "We can't force a district to do it," he said.
A separate bill, which advanced with three yes votes and two abstentions, would require schools in which 5 percent of the student body is eligible for free or reduced-price meals to serve breakfast. Under current law, the threshold is 20 percent for breakfast and 5 percent for lunch.
The program is federally funded, and schools are reimbursed for the meals. The state matches the funding for lunches with $5 million.
"If it's working for lunch, it should work for breakfast," said Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D., Camden), a sponsor of the legislation and chairwoman of the committee.
Sharon Seyler, legislative advocate for the New Jersey School Boards Association, said she was concerned that expanding the number of schools required to offer the breakfasts could become financially burdensome for districts. If not enough people participate, she said, school districts may not receive full reimbursements.
The legislation still needs to pass the full Assembly and Senate before it would head to Gov. Christie's desk.