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School Breakfast Programs

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It’s common knowledge that a healthy breakfast is key to starting the day right. That goes doubly so for school kids, for whom a full stomach is important for classroom focus and academic achievement. Research has shown that students do better on both daily curriculum and standardized tests after they’ve eaten a nutritious meal; when kids are hungry, it’s more difficult to concentrate and learning can become a struggle.

Ideally, a balanced breakfast is being served at home. But that’s not necessarily the case for the 16 million American children who live in food-insecure households, a shocking number of whom reside in the Delaware Valley. According to the latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics, 40 percent of public school students in Pennsylvania, 37 percent in New Jersey and 51 percent in Delaware are deemed as low-income and eligible for free or subsidized school lunches. As such, they are also eligible for the school breakfast programs that are adapting tactics to gain traction in area schools year over year. 

Who’s Eligible for
Free School Meals?

Children from families with incomes at or below $31,525, children in families receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or children in families receiving benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) are eligible for free school breakfasts, lunches and snacks. Children in families whose income is between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for subsidized, reduced-price breakfasts and lunches.

Breakfast at school

To address the issue of hunger in needy children, the federal government set up the School Breakfast Program (SBP) in 1966 and authorized it in 1975. School districts and independent schools that take part in the program receive cash subsidies from the US Department of Agriculture for each meal they serve. 

However, only 45 percent of eligible kids who eat lunch at school currently take advantage of their free or reduced-price breakfast, according to the national School Breakfast Scorecard crunched by the national Food Research and Action Center. That breaks down to 200,000 kids in Pennsylvania, 300,000 in New Jersey and 40,000 in Delaware who are still missing out on a sufficient, accessible nutritional start to their school day. Here are several ways local school districts are trying to reduce those numbers.

A new breakfast menu

For decades, New Jersey’s SBP student participation languished. As recently as 2010-11, only 28 percent of eligible children ate breakfast at school, compared with the 85 percent who participated in the school lunch program. Last year, the Garden State achieved the highest increase in the nation for SBP participation, moving from 46th place to 37th. (By comparison, Pennsylvania currently ranks 41st and Delaware, 21st.)

One reason for this improvement is a change made in the way public schools are serving breakfast. In the past, the  majority of New Jersey school districts offered breakfast in the cafeteria before school started, when most students had yet to arrive. Today, many serve breakfast after the bell rings, usually by bringing trays into the classroom during the first few minutes of the school day. 

See next page for innovative school breakfast programs in our region.

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