As childhood hunger rises, calls grow for free meals in schools for all

By: - August 18, 2021 7:02 am

Angeline Dean, left, board president of Garden State Agrihood Project, stands at the Capital City Farm with Mercer County Parks Superintendent Anthony Cucchi and Barbara George Johnson of the John S. Watson Institute of Urban Policy and Research at Kean University. (Courtesy of Angeline Dean)

Before the pandemic, Angeline Dean arranged a field trip to the Trenton Statehouse for students — mostly kids of color — to see lawmakers who looked like them in action.

The community organizer hoped the trip would inspire them to dream grand futures for themselves.

One child had a question.

“He asked: ‘Will there be food there?’ And when he said that, you could see all the other kids waiting for an answer,” Dean said.

The exchange was an epiphany for Dean, who now considers food as essential to academic success as teachers, textbooks, and technology. It’s why she now supports free meals for all students at school.

“Childhood hunger is an equity issue, just as much as resources and opportunity are equity issues,” said Dean, board president of Trenton urban gardening initiative the Garden State Agrihood Project. “This is another system that has to be addressed, when we talk about addressing systemic inequities.”

Dean joins a growing chorus of voices calling for free meals for all students, which supporters say are more urgently needed now than ever, since the pandemic increased hunger and poverty and deepened inequalities.

In New Jersey, 1 in 10 children experienced food insecurity in 2019 — and that rate is projected to worsen this year to as much as 1 in 4 children in areas of the state with more poverty like Atlantic, Essex, and Cumberland counties, according to Feeding America.

“Kids need food to learn. They need food for fuel. That’s the basic bottom line,” said Adele LaTourette, director of Hunger Free New Jersey. “Universal meals across the country — that’s the fix. We are behind that 100%. We need to make sure our states are uniform in what they’re giving our kids. And we know the federal government has the capacity to sustain that.”

States stepping up where feds fail to act

Free and reduced-price meals are federally funded, and before the pandemic, families had to fill out lots of paperwork and prove financial need to get them. About 21.8 million students participated, according to the national School Nutrition Association.

The pandemic, though, made free meals the norm, with the USDA offering them to all students regardless of family income. Earlier this year, the USDA announced it would extend universal meals through the coming school year and raised reimbursements to offset higher costs caused by supply-chain disruptions and the extra packaging needed for grab-and-go meals.

Supporters hope free school meals are here to stay for good. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has pushed for them for years, announced legislation again in May that would permanently provide free breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a snack to all students, eliminate school meal debt, and incentivize local food procurement. In New Jersey, Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat, signed on as co-sponsor.

The idea has its critics, mostly conservatives raising concerns about the cost to taxpayers of a “blanket entitlement” and questioning why students not in financial need should get free meals. Others argue that policymakers could alleviate food insecurity by instead better targeting schools in high-poverty communities.

Either way, some states aren’t waiting for the feds to act. California and Maine have both passed universal meals legislation. In New Jersey, advocates like LaTourette say they’ll push for it when the new legislative session starts in January.

They might not have to push too hard. State Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) said Tuesday she has tasked her staff with researching the issue and plans to introduce a bill in January, if someone hasn’t already beat her to it by then.

“I’ve always supported providing meals in school at no charge. We spend billions of dollars every year educating our children, and they cannot learn if they are hungry,” Turner said. “In New Jersey, we have one of the highest costs of living. We know, too, that food prices skyrocketed before the pandemic, and so many of our parents are unemployed and can’t get unemployment checks.”

We spend billions of dollars every year educating our children, and they cannot learn if they are hungry.

– Sen. Shirley Turner

She added: “It’s a matter of priorities. Are we going to provide money for guns or butter? We wasted trillions of dollars over in Afghanistan, and we can’t feed people here?”

Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) agreed: “It is something that our state needs to look at, and that is a priority of mine — to make it into our budget on a more permanent basis.”

New Jersey students received 62 million lunches and 57 million breakfasts last school year under the program, according to the New Jersey Department of Agriculture.

There already has been some progress on the issue in New Jersey. Lawmakers last year passed legislation — sponsored by Turner and Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) — that made reduced-price meals free for students by covering their $4.5 million cost.

For universal service, Hunger Free New Jersey crunched the numbers and estimates it’ll cost the state an extra $152 million to provide free breakfast and lunch to the students who now don’t financially qualify for free or reduced-price meals under the federal standards.

K-12 — and beyond?

To supporters, the cost is worth it.

“How do we make sure kids are eating? The answer is universal service,” LaTourette said.

Universal meals eliminate the stigma for students embarrassed by their family’s financial struggles, added Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the Virginia-based School Nutrition Association. “It puts kids on an equal playing field in the cafeteria,” she said.

And Emily Chertoff, executive director of the New Jersey Consortium for Immigrant Children, said universal meals benefit immigrants. Families with a language barrier or undocumented immigrants reluctant to share information with the government sometimes have foregone free meals they’re entitled to because of the paperwork the USDA historically has required to prove financial need, she explained.

Supporters stress that universal meals are just a part of reducing childhood hunger. Policymakers must develop other strategies to reduce poverty and food insecurity, such as expanding food assistance and increasing the number of schools and districts served under the federal “Community Eligibility Provision,” which provides free meals to all students in high-poverty communities without requiring them to show need, LaTourette said. President Biden’s American Families Plan would expand CEP access.

“We have to look at everything. This is a conversation, as much as it’s happening at the federal level, that we need to have at the state level too,” she said.

And policymakers can’t forget that hunger doesn’t disappear when students collect their high school diplomas, LaTourette added.

“Let’s make the commitment to K-12, but let’s recognize that college hunger is real and growing, and that food pantries are not the answer to college hunger,” she said. “Food pantries are a Band-Aid. They’re critically important, but we need a long-term solution, and the long-term solution is college meals.”

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.