Report: Districts could do more to fill empty stomachs in Union County classrooms

There are children presumably going to school hungry in Union county but there is no reason they should, according to a report just released.

The 2nd Annual New Jersey School Breakfast Report, compiled by Advocates for Children of New Jersey, said some towns in the county have not done the job they should in ensuring school-aged children receive the breakfast they could be receiving. Whose fault is that? The school districts, according to the report.

The good news is that more New Jersey children are eating a healthy breakfast at school, thanks to a federally funded child nutrition program. In fact, the state saw a 21 percent increase in the number of children from low-income families receiving breakfast at school from October 2010 to March 2012.

The increase in school breakfast participation means nearly 29,000 more children across the state are getting a healthy breakfast every school day, which is 5 million more meals served over the course of the school year. It also means millions more in federal funding flowing into New Jersey districts. But despite the progress, just 35 percent of the 471,714 children eligible for free or reduced meals actually received them in March 2012.

Nearly 20 percent or more eligible children have a breakfast program, as required by state law. But far too many of these districts serve breakfast before school starts when children have not arrived. According to the report, in 2010 nearly one in three New Jersey children, or 619,000, lived in families that earn too little to meet their basic needs. That is a 14 percent increase since 2006.

During the same time frame,New Jersey households without enough food, the report indicated, rose an alarming 56 percent.

Union County has several towns that are school breakfast underachievers, including Hillside,Linden, Rahway and Plainfield. All are high poverty districts with low participation as of March 2012.

At the top of the list is Plainfield, which has 4,857 children eligible for the free breakfast program, but only 28 percent of students participate in the program, leaving 3,517 not served. This district has a possible total federal reimbursement of $1.1 million for participating.

The Linden school district is also an underachiever, with 3,036 children eligible for the free program, but only 19 percent participate. That leaves 2,471 children not served and $789,282 federal dollars on the table for the school district.

Rahway also has not been participating fully in the program, with 2,212 eligible for free breakfast but only 18 percent of children participating. That leaves 1,821 kids not served by this program. This school district also could bring in $584,820 in federal dollars to pay for the program, but failed to ensure their students were informed of this morning option.

Hillside, which could have $462,465 in federal dollars for this program, also failed to provide all eligible students with breakfast. For example, although 1,876 children were eligible, only 23 percent took part while 1,450 did not.

Part of the problem, the report said, is that these particular school districts are not aggressive enough in notifying eligible students and their parents about the program. But Union County school districts are not alone. Only 35 percent of eligible children are participating in the program throughout the state.

“That leaves a lot of room for improvement,” said Cecilia Zalkind, executive director for Advocates for Children of New Jersey, a nonprofit research and action organization.

Zalkind urged school districts, school leaders, superintendents, school boards, principals and teachers to follow the lead of school districts that became “breakfast champions,” by stepping up to meet the school breakfast challenge.

The report, supported by the New Jersey Department of Education and Agriculture, which provided the data, also pointed out ways school districts could energize their breakfast program.

School officials who built successful school breakfast programs provide a recipe for success. One thing that proved to be a turning point was proposing “breakfast after the bell.” Although clean-up time, cost and lost instructional time were concerns, by using good communication skills, these districts were able to meet the challenge.

In districts with a large number of eligible children for free or reduced priced meals, the most common approach, the report noted, was to provide breakfast free to all children. The group found that when more children eat school breakfast, the cost-per-meal generally declines. At the same time a district also realizes a substantial increase in federal school meal reimbursement dollars.

Zalkind reported that as more school districts step up to provide breakfast “after the bell,” these districts will serve as models for others.