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New Jersey schools would be required to establish “school meal funds” to help students buy food in school or to pay down a student’s lunch debt under a bill a Senate committee will hear Thursday.
Under the measure (S1661), money from the fund would be used only to help pay for students’ breakfasts or lunches, aside from bank service costs. School districts would be required to keep the money in a separate bank account.
School boards would have to adopt a policy to outline how they’d dole out the money and ensure equity among students. The fund would be subject to an annual audit.
Activists say helping students pay for their meals helps tackle food insecurity, cut down on bullying, and break the cycle of poverty for low-income students. Children who are hungry are less likely to pay attention during class, studies show.
In 2019, the Cherry Hill school district came under fire for considering a proposal that would have punished kids who had a $10 lunch debt by feeding them only tuna sandwiches, and denied lunches entirely to students with more than $20 in unpaid meals.
Several bills addressing hunger have advanced through the Legislature this session, including Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin’s (D-Middlesex) bill to expand the state’s free and reduced lunch program to 26,000 more students.
The bill under consideration Thursday by the Senate Education Committee would also require schools to inform parents and guardians about the fund and potentially solicit donations from residents of the district and community organizations.
Students can get free school breakfast and lunches under federal protections passed during the pandemic, but they expire June 30. It appears Congress will not extend them.
The school fund bill was reintroduced in January by Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex). In the last legislative session the Assembly passed it unanimously but the Senate never voted on it.
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