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  • Making Strides in School Breakfast Participation in New Jersey

    The New Jersey Department of Agriculture works collaboratively with the Food for Thought campaign towards increasing school breakfast participation in the Garden State. Many more children are eating breakfast in school than they were just a few years ago thanks to these efforts.

    The School Breakfast Program was established as a pilot by the federal government in 1966 to ensure low-income school children or students who had to travel great distances to school received “adequate nutrition” at the beginning of each school day. The program was expanded to all states in 1975 and provides federal funding for schools that participate.

    School breakfast was an expansion of the National School Lunch Program, which had been providing hot lunches to American children since 1946. Every day in our country, 30.7 million students participate in the lunch program. However, only 13.2 million eat breakfast in school.

    The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), a national nonprofit organization that works to eradicate hunger and under nutrition in the U.S., has issued a School Breakfast Scorecard annually since 1991 to encourage parents, communities, schools, states and the federal government to further expand use of this “proven tool for meeting educational and nutritional needs in the country.”

    FRAC had ranked New Jersey at or near the bottom of all states in participation in the program up until recently. This year, the state ranked 37th in the nation. Currently, 254,968 children eat school breakfast on a daily basis – 196,094 receive free breakfast. That contrasts with 649,766 students who eat lunch daily in school with 369,350 getting a free lunch.

    It is a widely known fact that breakfast is an important meal. Research shows that students who eat breakfast daily have increased attendance, decreased tardiness, improved academic performance -- both in class and on standardized tests -- improved attentiveness and reduced emotional and behavioral problems. There also are fewer trips to the nurse’s office.

    However, there are many obstacles getting in the way of children sitting down to a breakfast meal. Vast numbers of children come from the growing ranks of food insecure families. In addition, some cannot eat at home because in this hurried world, many parents leave for work early and frankly can’t find the time to fix breakfast. With school days beginning early in many cases, children tend to not be hungry when they wake up but are ready for breakfast by the time they get to school.

    New Jersey law requires breakfast to be served in schools in which 20 percent or more of the students enrolled are eligible for free or reduced price meals under the National School Lunch Program. Many schools that offer breakfast do so in the cafeteria before school. This requires students to arrive to school early in order to eat breakfast. However, we are seeing much higher participation in the program in schools that offer breakfast in the classroom, and the difference might be in how and where breakfast is delivered.

    In an effort to provide greater access to healthy breakfasts, the New Jersey Departments of Agriculture and Education in January of 2012 partnered on a letter sent to every school in the state encouraging breakfast in the classroom and allowing for the time spent – which amounts to about 10 minutes – to be considered part of instructional time. Through changing the method of delivering breakfast, schools have seen an increase in students participating in the program to which they are entitled.

    The Department of Agriculture has been working for the last few years to educate school districts about the breakfast program and get more schools to serve breakfast in a way where more students can benefit. The Department has held many trainings and webinars and acted as a resource for districts and individual schools seeking to implement breakfast in the classroom. Since the letter from the Secretary of Agriculture and Education Commissioner, there have been more districts serving breakfast and many schools instituting Breakfast after the Bell.

    In March 2014, the Department celebrated National School Breakfast Week in Lindenwold, where breakfast is provided free to all students, regardless of their family’s income level. There we saw how the breakfasts were packed and then delivered to the classrooms on carts. We watched students enjoy breakfast and clean up their places at the start of their school day.

    In an effort to assist schools in need with their breakfast programs, the USDA awarded the Department $250,000 in grant funds to provide subgrants, not to exceed $10,000, to local educational agencies to establish, maintain, or expand their School Breakfast Program. In order to qualify, a school must be deemed “severe need” which means the school, two years prior, must have served at least 40 percent of lunches at a free or reduced price through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). In addition, priority will be given to those agencies with qualifying schools in which at least 75 percent of the enrolled students are eligible for free or reduced price school lunches and have average daily breakfast participation under 35 percent. The Department will award the grants for the 2014-15 school year.

    There are many good reasons for school districts to operate a breakfast program. Breakfast is an easy meal to prepare since there are a lot of ready-to-serve items on the market and the labor time needed is very limited. It also is easy to administer since it uses the same meal applications as lunch.

    Bottom line, breakfast is cost-effective. The level of federal reimbursement can cover all costs. Improved participation is not only good for the students, but a vibrant, well-utilized breakfast program results in a significant increase in meal reimbursement revenue. Classroom breakfast is a proven way to increase the number of students eating the morning meal.

    Changes to how breakfast is offered can only happen with strong support from teachers, school administrators, municipal officials, parents and communities. The New Jersey Department of Agriculture is here to help and support efforts in this vital issue affecting our children.