Food for thought: NJ Assembly panel wants more school breakfasts

By Matt Friedman/The Star-Ledger

A state Assembly panel today approved two bills intended to increase the number of students eating breakfast in schools.

Saying well-fed students perform better, advocates and state officials claimed strides in enrolling more low-income students in federally-funded school breakfast programs over the last several years. But the numbers lag far behind lunch programs, in part because some districts fear for their reputations, officials said.

“Some districts didn’t want to participate because of the stigma of thinking that it was a low-income district,” Secretary of Agriculture Douglas Fisher, whose department administers school meal programs, said during a meeting of the Assembly Women and Children Committee.

The committee then approved a bill that would increase the number of districts required to offer breakfast (A2840).

Currently, districts are required to offer school breakfast if 20 percent or more of their students qualify for free or reduced meals under the federal School Lunch Program. If the bill becomes law, the districts would have to offer breakfast if just 5 percent of their students qualify.

“We just want to make sure that the kids who don’t have breakfast get breakfast,” Fisher said.

The percentage of low-income students eating breakfast in New Jersey schools increased from 38 percent in the 2010-2011 school year to more than 45 percent in the 2012-2013 school year, according to the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.

Sharon Seyler, legislative advocate for the New Jersey School Boards Association, said her organization was generally supportive of the idea, but was concerned that districts without a lot of low-income students may not get enough federal funds to completely cover the program.

“If you don’t have enough of the percentage, you’re not going to get enough of the federal reimbursement to maintain the program,” Seyler said.

Seyler suggested amending the bill so that schools can enter into partnerships with corporations to offset additional costs.

The committee voted 3-0 with two abstentions to approve the bill. All three Democrats on the committee voted in favor of it, while the two Republicans abstained.

The committee also approved a bill (A2186) that would mandate low-income districts that have 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch offer “Breakfast After the Bell,” in which breakfast is served in the classroom during the first part of the school day rather than in the cafeteria before the bell rings.

Currently, 649,000 students eat lunch in school each day, Fisher said. Less than half — 254,000 – are served breakfast.

The vast majority of the money for school lunches is provided by the federal government. New Jersey contributes about $5 million a year towards the program. The state used to contribute more, but four years ago Gov. Chris Christie trimmed it by $3 million. He never restored the funding.

The state does not contribute anything towards school breakfast programs, Fisher said.

Nancy Parello, communications director for Advocates for Children of New Jersey, said that districts that offer “Breakfast After the Bell” saw the number of students eating breakfast in schools “skyrocket.” But she said some districts have resisted.

“300,000 low income students were not receiving breakfast as of April. That number has probably improved since then, but it’s a lot of kids,” Parello said. “It’s about changing the mindset. It’s kind of simple, when you think about it. You’re serving breakfast half an hour later. But you’d be surprised how difficult it is to convince people to do that.”

Parello said that, while the federal government pays for low-income students’ breakfasts, parents with means typically pay about $1 a day if they want their children to eat in the classroom as well. The bill passed 5-0.

The committee also approved a measure that would require school districts to wait longer to deny food to students if their parents haven’t paid their lunch bills. The measure (A1796) was introduced after Willingboro’s school district said it would deny lunches for students whose parents haven’t paid up, even if they’ve loaded up their trays.

The bill, which was approved 5-0, would require schools to contact the students’ parents or guardians if the students’ lunch account isn’t paid and give them 10 days to pay it. The school would then have to issue a second warning to the parents, and then give them another 7 days to pay before they could deny the child lunch.

The committee also voted 5-0 to approve a bill (A2644) that would require the state Department of Agriculture to make a website to serve as a “clearinghouse” for farmers to provide produce and dairy to school meal programs and food banks.

This is the first legislative step for all four of the bills. To reach Gov. Chris Chrsitie’s desk, they must be approved by the full Assembly and state Senate.

Read the complete story here.