The number of low-income children who receive breakfast in New Jersey schools each day has dramatically increased, according to a new report released Tuesday, but the state still lags far behind nationally.
There was a 21 percent increase in the number of low-income students eating breakfast at school from October 2010 to March 2012, according to Advocates for Children of New Jersey, which released the report.
The group compiled its findings from state data.
Schools are increasingly serving students breakfast after the school day starts, allowing more children to access a healthy breakfast and attributing to the jump, the report said.
Traditionally school breakfasts were distributed before the school day, denying access to students who did not show up early.
"Serving breakfast before school is ineffective," said Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey.
In January, New Jersey Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf encouraged school districts to serve breakfast after school started and to be creative about it. Possibilities included brown-bag breakfasts or offering a second shift for students who missed the first meal.
But despite New Jersey's gains, the state lags in progress. Only 35 percent of children eligible for free or reduced-price breakfast in the state actually received it in March 2012, Zalkind said. Statewide, 459,000 students are eligible for the meal.
New Jersey also trails far behind nationally, ranking 48th for access to school breakfast. The state fell two spots from last year's national rankings. Zalkind attributes this to implementation issues and schools serving the meal before school starts.
State law requires districts to have a breakfast program if 20 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
Community Charter School of Paterson serves breakfast to 90 percent of its eligible students, while Wildwood gives 88 percent of students who meet the requirement breakfast. The report said 64 districts where half of students qualify for free or reduced meals served breakfast to less than one-third of eligible students.
Zalkind said the group wants to increase school breakfast participation 30 percent by next June.
The report cites examples of teachers and food service directors who have implemented classroom breakfasts while reading and making a priority to clean up the food.
"There's no time taken away from instruction and breakfast definitely helps keep them energized and focused throughout the day," Chelsea Vargo, a second grade teacher at First Avenue School in Newark, said in the report.
Nationally, more states are trying to serve school breakfasts after the start of the school day, an initiative called "Breakfast After the Bell."
New Mexico passed a law last year requiring school districts with low income students to serve breakfast after the start of the school day. New York State has also started serving breakfast after school starts.
At East Side High School in Newark, a city where 71 percent of eligible students receive breakfast, students in a sophomore geometry class noshed on reduced-sugar Fruit Loops and honey graham crackers and drank apple juice and skim milk.
Valerie Wilson, business administrator for Newark's schools, defended the nutrition of the breakfasts, saying the offerings are reduced in sugar and the drinks are 100 percent juice or milk.
"We do that because children identify a lot more than we think with brands," Wilson said.
A table outside the school's auditorium displayed the types of food offered as part of the program: reduced sugar Apple Jacks cereal, mini "maple madness" waffles and Trix strawberry banana bash yogurt.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker randomly called on students in the geometry class, asking if they had eaten breakfast at home. One student, who had not, said his dream job was to be an athlete.
"You should really be all about nutrition, man," Booker said.
Linda Ortiz, 15, sat at a desk littered with an empty container of Fruit Loops and a graham cracker wrapper.
"It's good," Ortiz said. "I get hungry during school and this helps me think."