Measure to Provide Over a Third of All NJ Students Access to Free Meals
Expanding access to free meals for families struggling to afford the cost of reduced-price school meals, a measure requiring the State to cover the cost of reduced price breakfast and lunch for eligible public school students was advanced by the Assembly Appropriations Committee on Thursday.
The bill (A-5855) is sponsored by Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin along with Assembly Democrats Pamela Lampitt and Jamel Holley.
“It’s critically important that children have access to regular and nutritious meals while at school, but the sad fact is that for many families the financial burden is too great,” said Coughlin (D-Middlesex). “Children who eat breakfast and lunch show improved concentration, greater alertness, stronger comprehension, better memory and advanced learning skills. Under this legislation, all eligible children will be afforded the opportunity to a free healthy and nutritious breakfast and lunch.”
Right now, students from households living under 130% of the federal poverty line, recognized as an annual income of less than $33,475 for a family of four, qualify for free school meals. In four person households where income is between $33,475 and $47,638, families only have access to reduced price meals.
This legislation would appropriate $4.5 million enabling the State to pay the difference between federal allocations for reduced priced breakfasts and lunches and the total cost of these meal programs.
In doing so, the bill expands access to school meals at no cost to roughly 518,910 students. And, according to 2017-2018 enrollment data from the New Jersey Department of Education, that equates to just over one third of all New Jersey school children becoming eligible for free meals under this measure.
“Food insecurity is an issue facing families in too many communities throughout our state,” said Lampitt (D-Camden, Burlington). “This bill would have a tremendous impact in expanding access to school meals ensuring children aren’t going hungry during the school day and empowering them to be more engaged learners. It also lifts the burden on school districts facing meal debts, who could be allocating their financial resources to provide student services in other critical areas.”
Under the legislation, the Department of Agriculture would be directed to adopt regulations for the scheduling and management of reimbursements to school districts.
“One in every eight children in New Jersey don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” said Holley (D-Union). “That fact is startling. By expanding access to free meals in school, we can lessen the burden of hunger and powerfully alter a child’s potential for success allowing them to lead healthy, happy lives.”
The bill’s Senate counterpart, sponsored by Senators M. Teresa Ruiz and Shirley Turner, was advanced by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee on December 5, 2019.
The Assembly bill now goes to the Speaker for further review.