‘Breakfast After the Bell’ Rings True in Efforts to Combat Kids' Hunger

Reasons why school kids go hungry in the morning range from not having breakfast available at home to being embarrassed about getting a free before-school meal.

“Breakfast After the Bell,” a new program backed by state lawmakers and education officials, aims to eliminate a key problem with serving breakfast before the school day begins -- few students are actually in school to eat the food.

The program, which school administrators are being urged to join, lets schools take 10 minutes at the start of the day to quickly serve and have students eat breakfast.

The increasingly popular initiative has contributed to surging participation in the school breakfast program.

The number of free and reduced-price breakfasts served in schools rrose from 136,000 in October 2010 to 184,000 in April 2013. Since then, state officials say, the number of meals served has risen even more. When all school breakfasts, including unsubsidized meals are totaled, 254,000 morning meals are currently being served statewide daily.

A bill passed yesterday by the Assembly, A-679], would require the state to keep track of the percentage of eligible students participating in the school breakfast program for each district, as well as the form in which breakfasts are served, as part of an effort to encourage wider adoption of “Breakfast After the Bell.” The bill also requires the Department of Agriculture to “make every effort” to help districts implement the program.

“We’re happy that the Legislature is sending a strong message to school districts,” said Nancy Parello, spokeswoman for Advocates for Children of New Jersey, an organization that supports school breakfasts.

State officials noted the progress being made earlier this month during a hearing of the Assembly Women and Children Committee.

But Agriculture Commissioner Douglas H. Fisher also noted that while 254,000 children are being served breakfast at school, a total of 649,000 children receive school lunches.

“We still have a ways to go, but at the same time we’re making extraordinary progress,” Fisher said.

The federal school lunch and breakfast programs are open to all schools, but districts usually must apply to participate. Districts with at least at5 percent of their students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches and at least 20 percent eligible for free or reduced-price breakfasts are required by the state to participate in each program. Federal subsidies of $1.58 for free breakfasts and $1.28 for reduced-price breakfasts are available, depending on the incomes of children’s families or whether the families receive assistance from various federal safety-net programs.

Fisher noted that while the state is encouraging districts to participate in the program, some districts see a stigma attached to participating.

Fisher added that some school officials don’t like the idea of taking time away from academics to serve the meals, but he said he believes that ithe positive impact of having fed the students yields benefits throughout the day.

That’s a point reinforced by Parello. “There are fewer classroom disruptions and misbehaving because they’re hungry,” if students receive breakfast, she said. “The instruction time you have is more productive for every single child in that classroom, and that’s the most important thing.”

Parello noted that the first several minutes of the school day are generally taken up by school announcements, making it a good time to serve the breakfasts. In addition, teachers can provide instruction as the food is served, she suggested, such as providing nutrition information or incorporating calorie numbers into math instruction.

Adele LaTourette, director of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition, also supports the bill.

“You’re serving breakfast at a time when kids are in school -- you’re not going to serve them when the kids aren’t there,” said LaTourette, co-chairwoman of the New Jersey Food for Thought School Breakfast Campaign.

Districts that participate in the breakfast or lunch programs charge families of children who aren’t eligible for free meals. The Assembly also passed a bill, A-1796] that would give those families an additional 10 days to pay bills that districts have found to be in arrears before the districts could cut off students from the meals.

Another bill passed yesterday, A-2644, would establish a website for farmers to list produce and dairy products they’re making available for school meals and food banks.

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