UNION COUNTY, NJ — Union County ranked 11th among the state’s 21 counties for the percentage of eligible students receiving breakfast through the federally subsidized school meal program for 2017, securing its position for a second year in a row.
The seventh annual NJ School Breakfast Report from Advocates for Children of New Jersey, a child advocacy nonprofit organization based in Newark, examined data for all districts that have at least 20 percent or more eligible students in the federal Universal Free Breakfast Program.
In Union County, the Plainfield School District and the Cresthaven Academy Charter, also located in Plainfield, had the highest percentage of eligible students receiving breakfast, according to the study. Sixty-four percent of eligible students received breakfast in this district, while the charter school had a 94-percent dispersion rate.
The Elizabeth School District ranked third in the county, with about 50 percent — about 11,100 eligible students — receiving breakfast, the study showed. Overall, 22,115 Elizabeth students were eligible for a free or discounted breakfast, accounting for 83 percent of the entire student population.
“No student who wishes to eat breakfast at the Elizabeth schools is ever turned away, regardless of ability to pay,” Elizabeth School District spokesman Pat Politano said in a Dec. 22 email. “Studies show there is an increase in test scores, attendance and dietary health for those who participate and a decrease in tardiness. It’s simply the right thing.”
More than 60 percent of eligible students in pre-K through eighth grade, and about 25 percent of students in grades nine through 12, participate in the program, Politano said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reimburses schools for each breakfast they serve, and the study showed how much federal funding districts did not receive by not providing breakfast to eligible students for all 180 days of the school year.
Elizabeth, for example, did not receive $3,982,565 in federal funds that would have gone into the district’s Division of Food and Nutrition Fund.
In contrast, the Kenilworth School District had about 4 percent, or about 15 eligible students, who received breakfast, according to the study. Overall, 355 students — or 25 percent of the student population — were eligible for the program so Kenilworth schools missed out on $99,117 in federal funds due to a lack of participation in the program.
School officials in Kenilworth are being proactive about making sure the subsidized breakfasts get to students who need them, Kenilworth Superintendent Thomas Tramaglini said in a Dec. 22 phone interview.
“We’ve tried to address this issue,” Tramaglini, who has been superintendent for about two years, said. “It’s a good thing to talk about because this is something we’re trying to expand.”
The authors of the annual study noted that districts that serve breakfast before the start of school have a lower participation rate in the program. Tramaglini has identified this as a deterrent in his own district, and it’s an issue that’s currently being addressed, he said.
School officials are considering scheduling the first class to start later so that students would have about 30 minutes — as opposed to 10 minutes — to eat breakfast. The proposal has not been finalized by the school board yet, Tramaglini said.
So, for example, students may get to school at around 7:30 a.m., but the first bell won’t ring until 8 a.m., Tramaglini said.
The later start times would particularly help students who are bused in from other districts, Tramaglini said. About 165 students go through a lottery process to attend Kenilworth schools and some have a long commute, giving them less time for breakfast.
“It’s not something we don’t take seriously,” Tramaglini said of the breakfast program. “If you don’t build the structure around the priority, then kids aren’t going to come.”
Some students may eat breakfast on the bus or before they come to school, he added. School officials in Kenilworth are also trying to get eligible students in the middle and high schools to return application forms for the program.
Last year, Elizabeth had 51 percent of its 22,169 eligible students participating in the program, the 2016 study said. Kenilworth, meanwhile, had only 7 percent of 340 eligible fully participating in the program.
The study was released Dec. 12, and used data from state Departments of Education and Agriculture to compile the rankings.
From first to last, the top 10 counties with the highest participation rates were: Cumberland, Essex, Passaic, Hudson, Cape May, Somerset, Middlesex, Atlantic, Camden and Salem.