New Jersey is making strides in filling students' empty stomachs at the start of the school day, but the state is still missing out on a number of opportunities to feed children when they need it the most, a report released Thursday said.

Scott Olson, Getty Images

According to Advocates for Children of New Jersey, based in Newark, schools and communities throughout the state can do more to "tap into" child nutrition programs that are funded by the federal government and don't cost the state a dime.

The report noted nearly 105,000 more children are starting each school day with a healthy meal, compared to 2010, the year before the launch of a statewide effort to increase breakfast participation. However, nearly 302,000 low-income children who would be eligible for school breakfast did not receive it in April 2016.

ACNJ said so many kids are missing out because of a rise in the number of children who meet the income requirements, along with the fact that many school leaders and staff continue to choose to serve breakfast before school when many students can't access the meal.

The group is behind a push to serve breakfast "after the bell" to ensure increased participation among students.

Districts receive funding based on their population of students who meet the eligibility requirements for free and reduced-price meals — 185 percent of the poverty level, or about $46,000 per year for a family of four. Districts in which more than 40 percent of their children qualify can serve meals to every student.

"When we kicked off our campaign in 2011, New Jersey was 48th in the country (for breakfast participation) and has been at the bottom for many years," said ACNJ Executive Director Cecilia Zalkind. "Today we've moved up to 23rd. We're the state that's made the most progress in serving kids breakfast."

Federal breakfast reimbursements for New Jersey have more than doubled between fiscal years 2011 and 2017.

According to national standards, 70 percent of low-income children who receive a price break for lunch should also receive a price break for breakfast. In 2016, 59 percent of New Jersey's low-income students were offered both.

It's also recommended that 40 percent of eligible students receive summer meals. Numbers from 2015 show 19 percent of eligible children received meals over the summer.

More than 1,200 sites in New Jersey were offering free, healthy meals to children during summer 2016 - a slight uptick from the year prior.

"We're now very interested in looking at what's happening with after school meals," Zalkind said. "The same federal program gives funding to districts and programs to provide after school meals, and it's underutilized in New Jersey."

Zalkind said after school meals are "part of the package" to reduce hunger among children in New Jersey.

Beyond "after the bell" breakfast and increased summer meal sites, the report recommended communities convene "local nutrition coalitions" — a task force of schools, libraries, parks, food parks and other entities — to expand participation in federal child nutrition programs.

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