NEWARK — For the first time since such figures have been collected, New Jersey has experienced a drop in the percentage of low-income students receiving free or reduced-price breakfast at school, according to a new report.

An estimated 304,000 New Jersey children living in low-income families are missing out on the important morning meal, the Advocates for Children of New Jersey report states.

Between April 2016 and April 2017, Newark-based ACNJ finds, the number of students receiving free or low-cost school breakfast dropped 2 percent — the first decline registered since ACNJ launched its Food for Thought campaign in 2011.

Of the 539,576 students eligible for a breakfast deal — based on family income — just over 235,000 were served.

By state law, breakfast must be offered in districts where at least 20 percent of students are eligible. At least half of the student body is eligible in several New Jersey districts.

But even in these schools where breakfast is mandatory, students are failing to get their hands on food to start the day.

The law does not detail how and where breakfast should be served. According to the report, many districts continue to serve breakfast before school begins. The report also alluded to schools reverting to this practice after attempting to serve breakfast once the school day had already begun.

"Serving breakfast after the bell rings, in the classroom, is really the best approach for reaching kids," ACNJ President Cecilia Zalkind told the Townsquare News Network. "Schools that continue to serve breakfast before school starts, in a central location, miss kids because they're not in school."

Kristin Brucia, a teacher in Bound Brook, gives her students breakfast after the bell, along with a "do-now" exercise to get their brains warmed up for another day of learning.

“Students ask for the breakfast immediately when they walk into the classroom in the morning,’’ Brucia said. “They’re hungry. When kids are hungry it truly impairs their ability to focus on their academics. They’re focused on their hunger.’’

In a 2017 survey from No Kid Hungry, about 75 percent of children said school meals help them pay attention and behave in the classroom. Nearly half of all teachers surveyed said they see hungry students arrive in their classroom almost on a daily basis.

Since 2010, school breakfast participation in New Jersey spiked by 73 percent, resulting in about 100,000 additional children receiving breakfast each school day.

Federal dollars reimburse districts for each meal served. This fiscal year, New Jersey anticipates $105 million in federal money.

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