Lisa Pitz, director of Hunger Free New Jersey, urges legislators to advance a bill that would provide free school lunches to all students statewide by 2028. Pitz was one of several advocates who testified before the members of the Assembly Agriculture and Food Security Committee on June 15, 2023. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)
All students in New Jersey would get free lunches under new legislation an Assembly panel unanimously advanced Thursday.
Giving all students free lunches, instead of only those from low-income households as schools do now, would remove the stigma that keeps some hungry students from participating in the federally funded free and reduced-price lunch program, supporters said. One in 12 households struggle with food insecurity in New Jersey, according to a 2022 report.
Hunger Free New Jersey Director Lisa Pitz was one of a steady stream of supporters who urged members of the Assembly Agriculture and Food Security Committee to pass the bill.
“Children cannot learn on an empty stomach,” Pitz said. “School meals are just as important to academic success as textbooks and transportation, which we do not charge families for. School meals for all is the most effective, efficient, and equitable way to ensure that all children have the nutrition they need to grow and thrive.”
Toni Bowman, president-elect of the New Jersey School Nutrition Association, said universal school lunches would eliminate the problem of meal debt. When students eat school meals but can’t pay for them, districts absorb that debt.
“This school debt can be a teacher’s salary, it can cut an after-school program, it can impact sports,” Bowman said. “Somehow the debt has to be accounted for.”
The state would foot the cost of the additional meals that aren’t federally subsidized, although the bill doesn’t project the cost and those who testified Thursday couldn’t pinpoint a figure either.
About half of New Jersey’s 1.4 million students now participate in the national school lunch program, and the need is rising, with about 73,000 more students now getting free lunches than did in 2018, according to USDA data.
The uncertain cost concerned Assemblyman Alex Sauickie (R-Ocean), a committee member who said he “did wrestle with it a little bit” because New Jersey has become increasingly unaffordable and many school districts are underfunded.
But Arlethia Brown had a persuasive response to that. Brown is senior director of school nutrition at Camden City School District, where all students are federally eligible for free lunches.
“You can’t put a price on feeding children,” Brown said.
Sauickie agreed and ultimately voted to support the bill, saying his wife is a teacher who has bought food for hungry students. And homelessness is rising in his district, he added.
“I think these go hand in hand — housing costs have gone up, energy costs have gone up, food costs have gone up, and the need for this is probably more than it’s ever been,” he said.
Under the bill, students could continue getting free lunches through the summer.
Advocates applauded the bill but urged legislators to drop a provision requiring a five-year phase-in and provide free meals to all right away, should the bill become law.
Pitz warned that expanding free meals incrementally until the 2028-29 school year would confuse families about who was eligible. It also would be “burdensome administratively,” Bowman agreed.
If the bill passes, New Jersey would join several other states that have passed laws to make school meals free for all students, including California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, and New Mexico, Pitz said. Federal lawmakers made school meals free for all early in the pandemic amid fears that school closures would leave many low-income students with no reliable source of nutritious food. But that ended last year.
The bill was introduced last week by Assembly members Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex), Shanique Speight (D-Essex), Carol Murphy (D-Burlington), and Shama Haider (D-Bergen).
“Bridging the gap in food access by expanding free school lunch eligibility will make a huge difference for those who are struggling but may be ineligible for free school meals,” Haider said Thursday in a statement after the bill advanced. “This will help fuel student health and learning across our state.”
A Senate version sponsored by Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) awaits a hearing before the Senate’s education committee.
The school lunch bill was one of several bills the Assembly’s agriculture committee unanimously advanced Thursday to combat food insecurity, including bills that would:
- Establish a “food rescue hotline” to connect organizations that want to donate unwanted food to food banks that serve people who need food.
- Require the state Secretary of Agriculture to establish a $6.5 million grant program that would help connect farms with local schools to ensure school cafeterias can serve locally grown produce and other healthy food.
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