Everyone agrees that children need to start their school day with a full stomach. After years of being nearly last in the nation for its participation in the federal School Breakfast Program, New Jersey has made significant progress. The state recently moved to 37th nationally, compared to its previous ranking of 46th for student participation in this critical child nutrition program.

A campaign to increase the number of children eating a school breakfast has set a goal to increase participation by 50 percent by June 2014 – and is well on the way to meeting that goal. Children enrolled in the school lunch program are automatically enrolled in school breakfast. The problem is that most New Jersey school districts serve breakfast in the cafeteria before school starts, when most children have not yet arrived at school. This method, while easier for school districts, fails to reach hungry kids.

The progress made in serving more school breakfasts is the result of a growing number of New Jersey districts switching to serving “breakfast after the bell,” rather than before school, when most students have not yet arrived. This approach, typically accomplished in the classroom during the first few minutes of the school day, significantly boosts participation, giving more kids the nutritious start to the school day that can help them concentrate and learn. A healthy breakfast helps students focus in class, score higher on standardized tests and avoid trips to the school nurse. When children are hungry, they struggle to concentrate on a reading assignment or solve a math problem.

Since the program is federally funded, most districts with high concentrations of low-income children can feed all students at little or no extra cost, significantly leveraging the considerable investment New Jersey makes in public education.

Perceived Barriers to Breakfast after the Bell

District officials often erroneously believe that serving breakfast after the bell, usually in the classroom, is logistically impossible. This is not true.

Three common concerns are easily overcome:

  • Cost Districts with high concentrations of eligible children are usually able to cover the cost of providing breakfast to more students since federal meal reimbursements increase, while operating costs remain relatively stable.
  • Clean up Districts worry that serving breakfast in the classroom will cause sanitary issues, but districts with after-the-bell breakfast have easily overcome this challenge. Breakfast products usually come in a bag or box, providing nutritious meals that are easy to serve and easy to clean up.
  • Lost Instructional Time Typically, breakfast takes 10 to 15 minutes from start to finish. The New Jersey Department of Education recently issued guidance stating that districts can avoid losing instructional time by serving breakfast during morning activities, such as announcements, attendance and individual or out-loud reading time.

Reimbursement from the Federal Government

A federal program available in New Jersey for 2014-2015 would provide free breakfast and lunch to every student in low-income schools. But officials at many local eligible schools said they are not sure it will be cost-efficient to participate. They are also concerned that the new program could cost them other state or federal aid, and that some families could object to a possible new requirement that all families provide income information.

The Community Eligibility Program (CEP), a part of the National School Lunch Program, allows schools in high-poverty areas to offer free meals to every child, and then get reimbursed by the federal government at a set rate. The program was included in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and has been piloted in about 10 states. Some of the districts that are or may be eligible for the program include Atlantic City, Pleasantville, Wildwood, Woodbine, Vineland, Millville, Bridgeton, Egg Harbor City, Commercial Township and the Galloway Community Charter School.

A survey of districts found few plan to apply this year. School officials said they are concerned about the cost and how the program might affect their eligibility for state aid and other federal funding that is currently determined by the number of children in the free and reduced-fee meal program. If districts are no longer going to track individual students, officials want to know how that aid will be calculated.

“When we first looked at it, I thought it was a great idea,” said Martha Jamison, business administrator in the Wildwood School District. “But when we look at the details, we could be penalized in other ways.”

Millville School Business Administrator Bryce Kell said their analysis showed the district would lose more than $100,000 a year by switching to the new program. He said the possible impact on state aid was also a concern. “We will continue to look at it, and if we could at least break even, would consider doing it in the future,” Kell said.

School administrators in Atlantic City, Egg Harbor City and Woodbine also said they had looked into the program but would likely not apply this year because there were too many uncertainties about funding.

Administrators in Commercial Township and the Galloway Community Charter School said they did the preliminary paperwork and would like to apply, but they are hoping for more guidance from the state on the potential impact.

Nancy Parello, spokeswoman for Advocates for Children of New Jersey, said they have been working with some districts and have asked acting state Education Commissioner David Hespe to issue guidance for the districts. On June 17, Hespe sent a memo to all school superintendents saying state aid for 2014-2015 would not be impacted since it had already been calculated.

The letter said the New Jersey Department of Education is in the process of developing an alternative to the current Free and Reduced Price Lunch Application that will be ready in time for the October 2014 student enrollment count, and districts will be given time to collect the required information.

The deadline to apply for the program was extended to Aug. 31, which could give some districts the time they need to evaluate the program’s financial impact. Under current rules, families must apply to have their children receive the free or reduced-price meals, with eligibility based on income. Under the CEP, eligibility is based on “identified students“ or those already in the state or federal system through programs such as welfare or food stamps.

Any school or district with at least 40 percent of such “identified students” can get free meals for all students and will be reimbursed by the federal program at a rate of 1.6 times the number of identified students. So a school with 50 percent identified students would get reimbursed for 80 percent of the meals at the “free student” rate, which in 2013-2014 was $2.99 for lunch and $1.58 for breakfast. The remaining 20 percent would be reimbursed at the “paid student” rate of 32 cents for lunch and 28 cents for breakfast. At the minimum required 40 percent of “identified students,” districts would get 64 percent of their meals reimbursed at the “free” rate. But if they have more than 64 percent of students currently enrolled through income eligibility, districts could lose money switching to CEP.

Wildwood has the highest local “identified student” rate at 61 percent and could get almost 100 percent of meals reimbursed. About 90 percent of K-8 students and 70 percent of high school students are in the free meal program now. Wildwood also gets 90 percent of eligible federal e-rate technology funding, and Jamison said her concern is that percentage could drop under the CEP program. The program is also touted as reducing paperwork for the districts, since families will not have to fill out the meal application form. But all families may instead have to fill out another income form so the district can receive accurate state and other federal aid.

Jessie Hewins, of the Food Research and Action Center, said more than 4,000 schools in 10 other states have already piloted the program successfully. She said Kentucky and Michigan require participating schools to collect family income data for state education purposes. She said it does take some work to switch to the new system, but it removes the paperwork from the school nutrition program budget, which is a savings in that area. She said one option is to include the new income form as part of the packet of information parents complete at the beginning of the school year. Asked whether parents might balk at being required to provide income information, she said there has not been a backlash in other states. The forms typically ask families to check off a box within a range of incomes.

A memorandum from the United States Department of Agriculture sent to all states explained that the most important goal of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA) is to ensure every American child has access to the nutrition they need to grow into healthy adults. The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is a powerful tool to ensure children in low income communities have access to healthy meals at school. Once initial eligibility and claiming percentages are established under CEP, they are guaranteed for four school years. There are approximately 3,000 local educational agencies and more than 22,000 schools that are eligible for CEP. CEP has the potential to offer more than eight million low-income children free meals each school day.

There are several resources available on the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) website to assist LEAs with the decision to elect CEP. The CEP webpage includes the Department of Education Title I Guidance, Question and Answer guidance, and tools to assist LEAs as they consider implementing this important provision. The FNS strongly encourages those schools and LEAs who have yet to elect CEP to review these resources and carefully consider the positive impact that it can have in their communities.

FNS is committed to providing healthy school meals to all of America’s school children. Reaching the most vulnerable students through CEP provides equal access to nutritious meals while also lowering administrative costs for schools. CEP benefits our children, our schools and our communities. FNS stands ready to work closely with state agencies to ensure that eligible schools and LEAs can take advantage of CEP and increase access to school meals in low-income communities.

The proposed rule “National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program: Eliminating Applications Through Community Eligibility as Required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010” was published November 14, 2013, and comments were accepted until January 3, 2014. Comments are being reviewed, but a final rule will not be published in time for the nationwide implementation of CEP. Until a final rule is published, this and other guidance from the Food and Nutrition Service are the implementing guidance.