[Editor's note: This story has been updated with input from Paterson Public Schools.]
PATERSON, NJ – Just 27 percent of the city’s 21,000 school children eligible for a subsidized school breakfast are receiving it, according to a report by advocacy groups.
Why is that? Educators and advocates are not exactly sure. They say there may be a number of factors at play, including the possibility that some may be eating breakfast at home or that they are arriving at school too late in the morning to eat there.
Regardless, efforts are being made to increase the number of Paterson school getting the free or reduced price breakfasts they are entitled.
One proposal is being called “Breakfast After the Bell,” under which students would be given breakfast during their first class.
“It doesn’t take away from instructional time, it’s an easy clean-up,” said Leah Dade, executive director, Paterson Alliance. “That’s a program we’d like to see implemented in Paterson. We will be advocating strongly for that. We’re working with the superintendent on how to make it happen.”
Paterson's state-appointed schools superintendent, Donnie Evans, is receptive to the idea. "We know that when a child eats a healthy breakfast, they are generally more attentive in class, and ultimately, it’s an important component in helping to improve student achievement,'' Evans said. "The District is committed to increasing school breakfast participation levels and we’re currently exploring options to make breakfast available in the classrooms.”
Lunch, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to be a problem. The Paterson Kids Count report says 85 percent of the 21,003 city children who are eligible get the free lunch. Advocates for Children of New Jersey produced Paterson Kids Count, in partnership with the Paterson Alliance and the financial support of the Henry and Marilyn Taub Foundation. Its goal is provide a comprehensive look at the well being of Paterson’s youth.
The Kids Count report showed that the percentage of eligible Paterson students eating the subsidized breakfasts in 2010-11 was not very much out of line with the rest of the state. The report said that 24 percent of the eligible Passaic County students get the subsidized breakfasts and 33 percent of the children statewide do.
At a state school board meeting on Wednesday, acting education commissioner Christopher Cerf said he would do what he can to boost those numbers.
In order to make “Breakfast After the Bell” happen in Paterson, teachers will need to be convinced that it can be done, Dade said. She plans to talk to other school districts about the challenges they’ve had with the program and how they overcame them.
Irene Sterling, director of Paterson Education Fund, agrees that “Breakfast After the Bell” is a great idea. “It’s cozy to think everyone [students] is sitting home having breakfast, but we know that’s not true,” she said.
Sterling feels that one way to make “Breakfast After the Bell” work is doing something close to what’s being done with lunch – a “sack breakfast” – something that doesn’t require a lot of fuss.
“It’s a breakfast that can be put in a small sack. Milk or juice, fruit,” Sterling said. “Not a hot breakfast. A muffin, cold cereal … simple. Kids eat quickly. It’s nutritious and it helps them start the day.”
One of the first steps to make this happen, Sterling said, is to make the district aware of the simplicity and benefits of providing breakfast during the first class. After that, officials then have to figure out how to incorporate it into the budget. “They’re doing it across the country and in New Jersey,” said Sterling. “There’s no reason why we couldn’t do it.”
The Rev. Pat Bruger of Cumac-Echo, anti-hunger campaign, said that school breakfast has been one of the group’s top agenda items for years. Working together with United Way, who received a grant to work on hunger issues, the goal is getting the school board to say that breakfast is a priority for children.
According to Bruger, there will be a meeting among stakeholders on January 20 and plans will be coming together at that meeting. “A lot of work will be done that day,” she said. “I would hope we would start sooner than later. My understanding is there is funding available to push a beginning initiative. It’s a work in progress. One meeting isn’t going to start it. We have a ball rolling and hopefully we’ll be able to keep it rolling.”
Sometime after the stakeholders' meeting, advocates plan to propose the program to the school district.
The bottom line is that families in need must get enough food, advocates said. “When you see that twenty-five thousand kids are receiving food stamps, that includes all the kids, including kids not of school age, it’s a huge portion of families that are hungry,” said Sterling.
Dade concluded, “We really are working to work with the organizations in Paterson, not just identify the issues, but to help create the solution.”