School officials pushed back against a recent report this week claiming the district does not provide free- and reduced-price breakfast for the majority of its low-income students.
The second School Breakfast Report cited 1,748 out of the 2,591 eligible students in West Orange did not receive a federally funded free- or reduced-price breakfast in 2011-12.
Board President Laura Lab, however, did not agree with the overall findings of the report.
“I think the report had information but it did not have the whole picture,” said Lab.
When the whole picture is taken into account, said Lab, a variety of issues can be seen working against the district. The breakfast program is served in the morning, for instance, which can be missed by students who are late or who come in at different times. Lab added serving breakfast later in the morning is a potential challenge because it will take away from instruction time.
The findings in the report are based on if “every eligible child received a school breakfast all 180 days of the school year,” which Lab said was unrealistic because it does not take into account absences. In addition, it counts as a strike against a district if a child does not choose to participate in the program.
A free- and reduced-price breakfast program is mandated in schools with a low-income student population of at least 20 percent. All of West Orange’s schools meet this threshold except the St. Cloud and Gregory elementary schools, but the programs are offered in those schools as well.
The federally funded School Breakfast Program is available for children living in low-income families. A family of four earning less than $30,000 a year qualifies for free school meals, and a family of four earning about $42,000 qualifies for meals at a reduced price.
The number of eligible students in the report is approximately correct, said Interim Superintendent James O’Neill, but he agreed it is unrealistic to believe there are about 1,700 going hungry in the district every day.
“We can’t force people to bring their kids to school to have breakfast,” said O’Neill. “... If kids came in on the regular bus, the kitchens are open and they could have breakfast; we have it available for them, but they just don’t take advantage of it.”
The free- or reduced-price lunch program does not have the same low participation rate. The lunch program serves nearly all eligible students, according to district Business Administrator Mark Kenney.
The difference between the breakfast and lunch programs, said Lab, emphasizes the challenge of getting students to school on time for the breakfast program.
The reimbursement figure for West Orange, estimated in the report as about $470,000, is also misleading, said Lab. The figure is not a profit for the district, rather only a repayment for food that is served, and does not take into account district expenses to hire personnel to prepare and distribute the food.