Less than one-fifth of Toms River Regional students who qualify for free or reduced-priced breakfast take advantage of the program, a report released Tuesday finds.
Toms River, like all school districts where more than 20 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced price meals, must offer breakfast by state law. The district complies with the law and offers a breakfast program to students, but only a minimal number of those who qualify for free or reduced price meals take advantage, according to a study conducted by Advocates for Children of New Jersey.
Data from the state departments of Education and Agriculture show that 3,904 total Toms River Regional students – 24 percent of pupils – are eligible. Of those students, just 16 percent take advantage of free and reduced priced breakfast, which the advocacy group says would give them an advantage in the classroom all day.
"School breakfast addresses a major barrier
to learning," said Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of ACNJ, in a statement. "School districts should be commended
for stepping up to meet the school breakfast challenge.
is much work to do."
Zelkind said U.S. Census data showed that the number of low-income New Jersey children has grown 19 percent
in the past five years, meaning more children than ever could be eligible.
The free and reduced meal program itself is funded by the federal government and administered by the state Department of Agriculture. If every Toms River Regional student eligible for the program took advantage of it, the district would be reimbursed $874,674, according to departmental figures.
Toms River Regional ranks near the bottom, percentage-wise, of Ocean County districts. County-wide, 34 percent of eligible students take advantage of the program. In neighboring Brick, 48 percent of eligible students ate breakfast at school. In Seaside Heights, 52 percent ate at school.
ACNJ is calling for school districts to encourage more families to sign their children up for the program and for school districts to begin serving breakfast after school begins rather than before the day starts when many children are not present to eat.