Atlantic City is leading South Jersey in school breakfast participation, with more than eight out of 10 eligible students being served a free or reduced-price meal, according to a new report from Advocates for Children of New Jersey.

The seventh annual report, “Food for Thought,” shows participation is up 2 percent from April 2016 to 2017 at the Absecon Island school district, although statewide participation of eligible students is on the decline.

“Our district believes that it is of the utmost importance for our students to begin their school day with breakfast,” said Atlantic City Superintendent Barry Caldwell. “Breakfast is the fuel that gets you going and provides enough new energy for your body to get started and to keep you functioning until lunch.”

To that end, the district has been serving breakfast as part of the school day, which Advocates for Children of New Jersey recommends to increase participation.

“Many schools have made incredible progress, proving that breakfast after the bell is doable. We must continue that progress — not slide backward and leave more children hungry,’’ said Cecilia Zalkind, president and CEO of ACNJ.

About 5,781 students in Atlantic City, or 83 percent of all students in the district, are eligible for the free and reduced-price breakfast under the federally funded School Breakfast Program. Districts are reimbursed for each meal served.

Of the eligible kids, 85 percent participate in school breakfast, the report states. Only five other districts had higher participation rates, four of which were charter schools.

ACNJ reports that eating breakfast leads to better academic performance, less disruptive student behavior, fewer trips to the school nurse, increased attendance and reduced childhood obesity.

Caldwell said Atlantic City gets the word out to parents and students about the breakfast program through school flyers, online notices and the Parent Resource Centers.

“School and district staff encourage students to come to school and enjoy breakfast to begin the school day. Students who arrive late are also offered breakfast so that they may begin their school day in a positive manner,” Caldwell said.

In the Wildwood School District, which participates in the Community Eligibility Program that affords all students in the district free meals, breakfast participation is at about 80 percent. Superintendent J. Kenyon Kummings said they have worked with families to customize the breakfast program to encourage participation.

“Basic needs are like a three-legged stool. If you kick one leg out, it will collapse. Our students who lack food stability in their lives know that they have a guaranteed meal at the beginning of their day and they highly benefit from the breakfast program. Hungry students are often distracted and off task, and in those cases, a milk and a cereal bar can help them to be ready to learn,” Kummings said.

Somers Point School District, which had one of the lower participation rates in Atlantic County at 30 percent in 2017, has been pushing to increase its participation and began this year offering “breakfast after the bell,” interim Superintendent Thomas Baruffi said.

“While we did see an increase of 45 students receiving breakfast, we’d like to see that percentage go even higher,” Baruffi said.

Baruffi said the district cannot force children to have breakfast in school, but he thinks there are other options to increase participation.

“We’re hoping that if we continue to educate them on the importance of breakfast and look at ways to make breakfast even more feasible, those numbers can get even better,” Baruffi said.

Somers Point is considering moving its breakfast program from the cafeteria to the classroom, although there might be logistical challenges.

“If it can be done, we will do it,” Baruffi said.

According to the report, this is the first year statewide participation in school breakfast has dropped since the New Jersey Food for Thought Campaign was launched in 2011 by ACNJ and the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition.

In the countywide rankings, Cumberland County placed first in the state for participation in the school breakfast program, up from second place the year prior. At total of 59 percent of eligible students participate in school breakfast at schools across the county.

Cape May placed fifth, with 49 percent participation. Atlantic County placed eighth, at 46 percent participation. And Ocean County placed 14th at 40 percent.

ACNJ reports a steady six-year increase in breakfast participation from 2010 has resulted in a doubling of federal dollars flowing to New Jersey school districts, anticipated at $105 million this fiscal year.

State legislative efforts are also underway to promote school meal programs, including one bill that would require the Department of Education to develop an internet-based online school-meal application for eligible students.

Atlantic City said it will continue its efforts to promote participation, which include encouraging students to attend the district’s morning enrichment programs and Saturday STEM program.

“We do our best to ensure that students and parents know that attendance at our programs ensures that students will be fed,” Caldwell said.

Contact: 609-272-7251 Twitter @clairelowe

Staff Writer

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. I joined The Press in 2015. In 2013, I was awarded a NJPA award for feature writing as a reporter for The Current of Hamilton Township.

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