TRENTON -- Improving on its progress from the previous year, New Jersey ranks 19th in the nation, up from 23rd, for feeding more low-income students breakfast at school, according to a report released Tuesday.
Free and reduced-price breakfasts reached 267,700 students during the 2015-2016 school year, up about 15,000 from 252,420 in the prior academic year, according to the Food Research & Action Center.
The Garden State ranked 46th in 2011, the report said.
"School breakfast is crucial for children's learning as well as their health," Jim Weill, the center's president said in a statement Tuesday. "While we are certainly happy progress is being made, there is still much room for improvement. Federal and state agencies, school districts, and education stakeholders must continue their efforts to increase participation in the School Breakfast Program."
300K low-income N.J. kids missed out on school breakfasts this year
The report bases its rankings on the percentage of students eligible for the National School Lunch Program who also receive breakfast.
Participation in the school lunch program has always outpaced the number of kids in the breakfast program due to the logistical problems of making sure kids arrive in time to eat before classes begin.
Another 300,000 students are eligible but do not participate, Cecilia Zalkind, president of the Advocates for Children of New Jersey, a family-focused research and advocacy organization which released the report in tandem with Food Research and Action Center and the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition.
In recent years as policy makers have pushed for the morning meal to be provided after the attendance bell has rung, participation has grown, Zalkind said.
"This is great news for New Jersey students," Zalkind said. "Without proper nutrition, children struggle in school. We continue to encourage more schools to adopt this very do-able solution to combating childhood hunger.''
New Jersey continues to rank at the bottom for the number of schools that offer free and reduced cost breakfasts, however. Last year, 2,104 or 80 percent of schools served both lunch and breakfast. In the prior year, 78 percent offered it.
"This year, we will continue to work with districts to bring breakfast after the bell to more schools, especially high schools where participation remains relatively low," Adele LaTourette, director of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition said.
"While many states serve breakfast in nearly all schools that offer lunch, in some states, as many as 1 in 5 schools that offer lunch does not offer breakfast to students," according to the report. "The two lowest-performing states in terms of schools participating in the School Breakfast Program -- New Jersey and Wisconsin -- offered breakfast in 80 percent and 79.9 percent, respectively, of schools operating the National School Lunch Program."
The program is paid for by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. School districts are expected to receive $98 million this year. The federal government pays $1.36 for each reduced-price breakfast and $1.66 for each free breakfast, depending on the family's income level and participation in Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, (or SNAP), according to the report.
Susan K. Livio may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @SusanKLivio. Find NJ.com Politics on Facebook.
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