An Assembly panel on Monday approved a comprehensive package of bills sponsored by Assembly Democrats to boost breakfast programs in schools, particularly for underprivileged children, in order to help give them a leg up on academics.
The package is sponsored by Assembly Democrats Joseph Cryan, Daniel Benson, Jason O’Donnell, Troy Singleton, Pamela Lampitt, Celeste Riley, Bob Andrzejczak, Gilbert “Whip” Wilson, Gabriela Mosquera, Gary Schaer, L. Grace Spencer and Eliana Pintor Marin.
The first bill (A-679/2186), sponsored by Cryan, Benson, Singleton, Lampitt and Riley, would require the state to make every effort to assist school districts and nonpublic schools in increasing the participation rate of students, particularly low-income students, in the federal School Breakfast Program by establishing a “breakfast after the bell” program in the first-period classroom or during the first few minutes of the school day.
The Department of Agriculture, in conjunction with the Department of Education, would oversee the effort and also be charged with preparing and issuing an annual report to the governor and the legislature on the number and percentage of students participating in a school breakfast program, and the format used for providing breakfast.
“Currently, the vast majority of New Jersey school districts only serve breakfast to a fraction of eligible children,” said Cryan (D-Union). “With research showing that school breakfast increases attendance and decreases tardiness, improves academic performance both in class and on standardized tests, and improves attentiveness, we need to make it a priority.
“Studies show that providing school breakfast also reduces emotional and behavioral problems among students from all different backgrounds,” said Benson (D-Mercer/Middlesex). “By making sure more students have breakfast everyday, we can boost both their physical and mental well-being and increase their long-term chances for success.”
According to Advocates for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ), the need to provide school breakfast to low-income children is growing. New census data shows that the number of low-income New Jersey children has grown 19 percent in the past five years, which means that more children are likely arriving in the classroom hungry.
“According to experts, the percentage of students that participate in school breakfast increases when breakfast is served in the classroom after the start of school,” said Singleton (D-Burlington). “If this simple change means a healthier head start for students, then we should do all we can to encourage it.”
“This change is key to increasing the participation rate of students from low-income families in the school breakfast program,” said Lampitt (D-Camden/Burlington). “It’s important that we make this program more accessible, particularly for students who are eligible and for some reason are not taking advantage of it.”
“As a mother and a teacher, I know how chaotic mornings can be and how hard it is for kids to get to school early,” said Riley (D-Cumberland/Gloucester/Salem). “Making school breakfast available after the bell will ensure more students get the nutrition they need to start the day right.”
The ACNJ’s third annual New Jersey School Breakfast Report identifies “breakfast after the bell” as an effective and successful approach to significantly boost student participation in the federal school breakfast program. According to the report, if New Jersey schools fed all eligible children, schools would receive an estimated $85 million more in federal funds to feed hungry children.
The second bill (A-1796), sponsored by O’Donnell and Cryan, provides that if a public school student’s school breakfast or lunch bill is in arrears, the district must contact the student’s parent or guardian to provide notice of the outstanding bill and provide a period of 10 school days to pay the amount due.
If the parent or guardian does not make full payment by the end of the 10 school days, the district is to then provide a second notice that school breakfast or school lunch will not be served beginning one week from the date of the second notice unless payment is made in full.
“This bill will help ensure that a student is not suddenly denied a school breakfast or lunch because the district determines that the student’s food bill is in arrears,” said O’Donnell (D-Hudson). “In order to put the student’s best interests first, we need to take a compassionate, yet practical, approach when it comes this sensitive issue.”
The third bill (A-2644), sponsored by Andrzejczak and Wilson, directs the state Agriculture Department, in consultation with the Education and Health Departments, to develop and establish a website to serve as a clearinghouse for farmers to provide produce and dairy products to school breakfast, school lunch programs and food banks throughout the state.
“This bill creates a win-win for everyone,” said Andrzejczak (D-Cape May/Atlantic/Cumberland), Chair of the Assembly Agriculture Committee. “Farmers will have a direct outlet to boost the sale of their produce and products and our students will have fresher, home-grown food as part of their daily lunch and breakfast.”
“The intent of this bill is to create a website similar to existing ‘for sale by owner’ websites,” said Wilson (D-Camden/Gloucester). “In doing so, we can provide a forum for farmers with produce and dairy products to connect with any school or district with a need for produce or dairy products for its school breakfast or lunch program.”
The fourth bill (A-2840), sponsored by Lampitt, Mosquera, Schaer, Spencer and Pintor Marin, would require public schools to establish a school breakfast program if five percent or more of the student body is eligible for free or reduced price meals under the federal School Lunch or Breakfast Program.
Under current statutes, a school with five percent or more of those eligible students must have a school lunch program, and a school with 20 percent or more of those eligible students must have a school breakfast program.
“It’s clear that we need to increase our efforts to make sure every eligible child is enrolled in this important program because New Jersey ranks a poor 46th nationwide when it comes to our participation rate in the school breakfast program,” said Mosquera (D-Camden/Gloucester).
“If we make a concerted effort to boost enrollment for eligible students, we will receive significantly more federal dollars to support the program while improving the health and performance of our students,” said Schaer (D-Bergen/Passaic).
The sponsors noted that the center estimates that New Jersey school districts would collect nearly $22 million more annually from the federal government if schools increase student participation so that 60 percent of students who receive school lunch also get breakfast at school.
“If New Jersey reached this benchmark, about 90,000 additional schoolchildren would receive a healthy breakfast at the start of their school day – a significant achievement,” said Spencer (D-Essex).
“It’s important that we not leave all these federal dollars on the table when it means the difference between tens of thousands of children receiving a healthy meal at the onset of each day – a meal that will go a long way towards boosting their performance as well,” said Pintor Marin (D-Essex).
All of the bills were approved by the Assembly Women and Children Committee by a vote of 5-0, except for A-2840, which was approved by a vote of 3-0-2.