By the start of the 2019 academic year, 661 New Jersey schools with a high percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals were required by state law to provide breakfast daily to their students once the school day began.

But new findings from a state-by-state report suggest many New Jersey schools did not abide by that mandate.

According to a report released by the Food Research & Action Center, New Jersey experienced an 8% drop in the number of low-income children who received a free or discounted breakfast in September through February of the 2019-2020 school year, prior to closures caused by the COVID-19 crisis.

The state's schools reached about 58% of eligible students with breakfast, compared to 59% the year prior when there was no breakfast-after-the-bell mandate.

"It's not acceptable, it's unconscionable, it's not the way we should be treating our students here in New Jersey," said Adele LaTourette, director of Hunger Free New Jersey.

LaTourette said her organization will perform a "deeper dive" into the data to determine which schools are not meeting the mandate. She called upon the state Department of Agriculture to work with the Department of Education to enforce the law that requires breakfast after the bell in districts where at least 70% of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

The FRAC report did not specifically look at whether students received breakfast before or after the school day began. Breakfast distribution in some fashion is required in New Jersey schools where at least 20% of students are eligible for cheaper or free meals.

LaTourette noted that breakfast distribution mandates are still in effect as many schools operate on a hybrid or all-remote model — parents may have to pick up meals in order to access the benefit.

In the annual report, New Jersey dropped from 21st to 25th among the states when looking at the ratio of low-income children participating in school breakfast to low-income children participating in school lunch.

"As schools look to open up, they have to make sure that their breakfast-after-the-bell programs are in place," LaTourette said. "They're to serve students who are coming off of an extremely challenging time."

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