Gottheimer Urges School Districts to Improve Participation in School Breakfast Program

Oct 15, 2018

Districts Can Help Claw Back Federal Tax Dollars No Child Goes to School Hungry

Above: Congressman Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5) surveys examples of school breakfast options provide at Nellie K. Parker Elementary School.

Today, Congressman Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5) joined school administrators, child health advocates, local elected officials, and students at Nellie K. Parker Elementary School to call on school districts to improve their school breakfast programs and utilize available federal dollars to ensure that no student begins their school day without the breakfast they need to succeed.

“Countless studies have shown that children who don’t start with breakfast are at a massive disadvantage for succeeding in school,” said Congressman Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5). “Only 59% of eligible New Jersey students participate in the School Breakfast Program. I encourage our districts to help make sure no child starts their day without a healthy breakfast.”

“The really critical thing for people to understand — for school districts to understand — is that it’s a win-win. You feed your kids, they need that meal, and you bring in more federal dollars into your district. It’s really a no-brainer. We are working very hard with districts to help them to institute breakfast after the bell. We are so excited that the Congressman has chosen to highlight this issue,” said Hunger Free New Jersey Executive Director Adele LaTourette.

Lydia Maggio, a registered dietitian, said, “It’s no secret that the most important meal of the day is breakfast. Here at Parker school we actually serve more than 430 breakfasts and about 2,600 in the entire district. According to the Food Research and Action Center, Children who eat breakfast at school — closer to class and test-taking time — perform better on standardized tests than those who skip breakfast or those who eat it at home. Students’ academic achievement increases — especially in math — when school soffer the school breakfast program.”

The School Breakfast program, funded by the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA), reimburses schools for the free and reduced-cost breakfasts served to students whose parents apply for the program – at no cost to the school district or to the local taxpayer. The USDA reimburses districts for each meal served, $2.09 for each free meal, $1.79 for each reduced-price meal, and 30 cents for a paid meal.

Congressman Gottheimer has been engaged with school districts across the Fifth District to encourage school superintendents and administrators to take advantage of these available federal funds. He has written and spoken to school districts individually, and called on parents to contact their districts to push their school leaders to expand their use of the program. In April, Congressman Gottheimer also hosted a conference call with administrators from across the Fifth District with the USDA.

Congressman Gottheimer has been focused on encouraging North Jersey schools, organizations and towns to demand a better return on investment for their communities and apply for grants that would return federal tax dollars to North Jersey.

In March, the Congressman joined local elected officials and first responders to announce that the Fifth District had clawed back $290 per household from Washington – 16% higher than in previous years.

Video of today’s event can be found HERE.

Below: Congressman Gottheimer visits with students at Nellie K. Parker Elementary School.

Below: Congressman Gottheimer’s remarks as prepared for delivery:

Thank you to Assemblyman Gordon Johnson, Superintendent Rosemary Marks, Hackensack Board of Education member Frances Cogelja for joining us, and to you Principal Lillian Whitaker for inviting us here today at Nellie K Parker Elementary.

Thanks to the teachers at Nellie K Parker, for everything you do for our community and our students.

Thank you to Piper McDermott, the Hackensack Food Service Director, for the work you do to help feed all the students here in Hackensack.

And thank you to Hunger Free New Jersey Executive Director Adele LaTourette and New Jersey School Nutrition Association Executive Director Amanda Bonneau, for the work you do every day to make sure none of our students have to be hungry.
Students like those joining us here, and the 5,700 students enrolled in Hackensack schools, and the more than 100,000 in schools throughout the Fifth District – they are all why we are gathered today: To make sure our children across North Jersey have every opportunity to succeed in school. And that success starts with breakfast, because no student should ever have to go to school hungry.

The studies couldn’t be clearer: Hunger in the classroom leads to a decreased ability to focus, decreased physical activity, stomach aches, headaches, depression, and anxiety. And studies also show that students who skip breakfast generally make more errors, have slower memory recall, and are more likely to be absent, tardy, and to repeat a grade.

But for those students who do eat breakfast, we see better vitamin and nutrient intake, healthier overall diets, and less susceptibility to being overweight or obese. A Tufts University study also showed elementary school students who eat breakfast listen better and have better spatial memory and short-term memory than students who skip breakfast.

Students who eat meals at school are less likely to be hyperactive and have fewer behavioral and attention problems than their hungry peers.

And according to the National Institute of Health, students who eat breakfast consistently show improvement in verbal fluency, arithmetic, tests of attention, memory, creativity, physical endurance, and general tests of academic achievement and cognitive functioning.

So, while we can all agree that breakfast is better than no breakfasts, there is a harsh reality: limited food budgets, challenges with early work schedules, and transportation logistics in the morning make it difficult for many families to provide a healthy breakfast every morning. Many parents are on their own or are working more than one shift a day.

Too often children arrive at school without the fuel they need to be active participants in the classroom. You can’t propel a rocket without fuel – the same goes for a growing student. They are rockets ready to take off to a successful life and career. But they won’t reach their dreams without fuel in the tank.

Unfortunately, too many of the children in northern New Jersey are showing up at our schools with the tank reading empty. It’s a nationwide problem and we’re not immune. In fact, a Share our Strength survey showed that three out of four public school teachers say that students regularly come to school hungry.

With the tremendous benefits that science tells us eating breakfast provides for our children, shouldn’t the leaders in our schools be doing everything possible to make sure that no child starts their day hungry?
Shouldn’t our schools make sure that every child can achieve his or her potential?

This is especially true when there are federal funds available that we can easily take advantage of right now – dollars that will go to other states if we don’t fight to claw them back for our children in New Jersey. The “Breakfast after the Bell” program allows kids to grab breakfast on their way to class and eat in the classroom, because most students can’t get to school extra early.

The School Breakfast Program, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reimburses schools for the free and reduced-cost breakfasts served to students whose parents apply for the program – at no costs to the school or our local taxpayers.

Under the School Breakfast Program, the USDA reimburses districts for each meal served, $2.09 for each free meal, $1.79 for each reduced-price meal, and 30 cents for a paid meal, in case a school wants to offer breakfast to everyone.

As unbelievable as it may seem, even with these resources, many districts are not utilizing these programs to help provide meals to our most needy – sadly, it is a national trend. 20 million students a year who could get a free breakfast aren’t.
The bureaucratic paperwork and overall stigma of the programs work in concert to keep breakfast participation rates far below what we as Americans should be willing to accept.

According to estimates by the Food Research & Action Center, in the 2016-2017 school year, states could have been utilizing more than $800 million in federal child nutrition funding, including $13 million right here in New Jersey. Those are resources to feed our children that we just left in the cupboard.

That same survey showed only 59% of eligible New Jersey students participated in the School Breakfast Program – and many North Jersey schools are worse.

To put a finer point on it: last school year, in the Fifth District, only 2,975 of the 10,585 eligible students regularly received the free or reduced-price breakfasts from their schools.
When you do that math, that’s 7,600 students across northern New Jersey who could get breakfast, but aren’t. 7,600 of our young people who have the world ahead of them, and we aren’t tapping into all of their potential. That’s simply unacceptable.

The year I took office, the Advocates for Children of New Jersey estimated that the Fifth District’s school districts were leaving $2,565,157 in federal dollars allocated for our students that we weren’t asking for.

That’s money left on the table.

And that’s a problem when you consider that while New Jersey has only 59% of eligible students participating. Other states like New Mexico and West Virginia – who get far more back from Washington than they put in – have participations rates of 70% and 85%.

These others states take advantage of the millions in federal dollars available, and we could be too. We only get 33 cents back for every federal tax dollar we send to Washington, while states like Mississippi $4.38 for every dollar they send.

We could easily claw back more of these federal resources from Washington for breakfasts for our students to help turn that trend around, and put more of our tax dollars back in our pockets.

When I was elected to Congress, after meeting with Advocates for Children of New Jersey, and speaking to the USDA, I made it a goal of mine to increase awareness and enrollment in school breakfast.

I have written multiple letters to North Jersey’s school districts and mayors, imploring their towns to work with my office to unlock these federal funds for their hungry students.

I’ve spoken to many of these districts individually to push them to enroll in these grants, and convened a conference call with school administrators with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the New Jersey Department of Agriculture to help set up or improve delivering breakfast to their students.

Some districts, administrators and superintendents have been incredibly responsive and engaged with my team to work to expand their breakfast programs and lead the way for all districts to raise their participation rates.

The Bergenfield Public School District and their superintendent Dr. Christopher Tully, for instance, have worked with my office to expand their use of the School Breakfast Program reimbursements and are well on their way to getting a breakfast to every student who needs one in the morning. And from the 2016-2017 school year to this past school year, the USDA data shows that Bergenfield has boosted their participation rates, and they hope to build on that in this current school year.

Here in the Hackensack Public Schools district, teachers and administrators have worked together to develop a strategy that worked for them and execute a tailor-made program that worked for each of their individual schools – which is why many of their schools now boast over 80% average daily participation in their breakfast programs. They had an additional one and a quarter percent improvement district-wide last year alone.

But other districts still have work to do in combatting hunger in our schools.

The Lodi Public Schools has an enrollment of more than 3,000, and more than half of their students are eligible to receive free or reduced-price breakfasts.

Last school year, however, according to USDA figures, only 8% regularly received the breakfasts they so desperately need.

And that’s even worse than the year before, where the USDA showed Lodi only covering 9.6% of the students who need access to this essential first step in their school day.

Despite numerous attempts by me, my office, organizations like Hunger Free New Jersey, to contact the administrators in Lodi – they have not responded. I just don’t get it.

We all must work together to help claw our tax dollars back, help improve abysmal participation rates, and feed our children. I just can’t explain it.

So, here’s my message to all school districts who aren’t reaching the mark: we can’t let a single child go hungry.

When the result would be hundreds more students starting their day with a sharper mind, stronger body, and better chance of a successful school day – the excuse that providing these meals is too bureaucratically burdensome just doesn’t add up.

I stand here today to call on the parents of districts with low participation across North Jersey to contact your school leaders to make sure these funds get used. And I’m ready to partner up with you in that fight.
Our children, these students, and our communities’ futures deserve better.

So, I’m ringing the bell. I am eager to work together with you all to make sure that no North Jersey student goes hungry. Our door is always open.

New Jersey has some of the best schools in the country, and providing our children the resources they deserve to succeed is critical. And, in the greatest country in the world, there’s no reason why we couldn’t or shouldn’t.

Thank you. God bless you, and may God continue to bless the United States of America.

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