By ERIN ROLL
Over 1,000 Montclair children are eligible for free and reduced-price breakfast served at their schools, but only about 13 percent of eligible students actually take advantage of it. Furthermore, the district has seen a 50 percent drop in participation since 2017, according to reports.
The most recent numbers indicate that 87 percent of Montclair’s most vulnerable are losing out on a free or reduced breakfast each day, according to the annual report by the non-profit Hunger Free New Jersey.
The organization tracks data on the Federal School Meal Service for low-income families, with the most recent numbers from October 2018.
2017 reports from the USDA and the DOE found that Montclair had an average of 281 students a day participate in its free and reduced-price breakfast program, while 959 students were eligible. Compared to 2018 where more students qualified —1,001 —, but yet participation dropped to about half with only 130 students participating.
Nancy Parello of Hunger Free New Jersey said that in most cases, a drop in participation is due to how breakfast is served: in the classroom, or in the cafeteria, or off a cart. In many districts, higher participation was directly linked to serving breakfast after the bell rang.
Superintendent Kendra Johnson declined comment on the report and its veracity, saying only that breakfast is available to all students who participate in the free and reduced meals program.
The issue, says Hunger Free New Jersey, is when breakfast is served.
The report says another 672 students would have to participate in the school breakfast program in order to bring Montclair up to 80 percent participation: the goal that Hunger Free New Jersey sets.
“Serving breakfast before school makes it difficult for students to access breakfast. Bus and family schedules and the stigma of coming to school early to eat keep many children away from the before-school breakfast table,” according to Hunger Free New Jersey officials.
Schools, such as one in Bloomfield, have implemented “Breakfast After the Bell,” serving breakfast during the first few minutes of school and offered to all students, with positive results.
Bloomfield’s Berkeley Elementary School began a Breakfast After the Bell pilot in September 2018.
In Montclair, school administrators and community leaders have indicated that many families who are eligible to sign their children up for free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch have opted not to do so due to concerns such as social stigma and fears that their information will not be kept confidential.
During the 2017-2018 school year, 15 percent of the district’s students were identified as economically disadvantaged.
Montclair was not included in Hunger Free New Jersey reports prior to 2018. In years past, Hunger Free New Jersey only published data on districts with 20 percent or more of students eligible for free or reduced breakfast.
If at least 80 percent of eligible students- 808 students in total – received breakfast through the school, the report argued, the district would receive an additional $210,411 in reimbursement from the federal government.
For the 2017-2018 school year, Montclair received $51,686 from the School Breakfast Program, and $388,660 from the National School Lunch Program.
At most of Montclair’s schools, the breakfast offerings include egg and cheese sandwiches, pancakes, French toast sticks or mini waffles with turkey sausage links or hash browns.
At Bradford, Northeast and Edgemont and Renaissance, the offerings include assorted cold cereals, muffins and Graham crackers, or bagels with cream cheese. All of the schools offer fruit cups, fruit juice and milk.
The Montclair Neighborhood Development Corporation and the Montclair NAACP have been working with the school district to encourage eligible families to sign up.