Two separate bills combating child hunger for New Jersey students passed the state Assembly.
The first proposal seeks to combat hunger among New Jersey students and prevent punitive action against them for incurred meal debt.
“We need to be getting a better picture of why families can’t pay and then developing action around that, not making assumptions,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle. “The solution could be as simple connecting parents with school meal program applications and qualification requirements, but until we ensure school districts are doing that we won’t know.”
The legislation requires districts to reexamine eligibility for school meal programs at the beginning of every school year, to make at least two attempts to contact families about meal programs and to provide assistance in the completion of applications. Additionally, school districts would be required to monitor and ensure the provision of free meals for homeless students.
“I find it totally unacceptable that children, whose families may be struggling to pay for any number of reasons, are being singled out,” said Assemblywoman Angela McKnight. “Taking a meal away from a child, forcing them to sit at a particular table or stand at the back of the lunch line, withholding grades and barring them from school trips or even prom hinders productive learning. It’s bullying and in no way appropriate.”
The second bill passed mandates when a school meal bill is overdue, a student’s parent or guardian would be notified and given a period of 10 school days to pay. Prior to notification, school districts would need to exhaust all options and methods to directly certify students for free or reduced priced meal programs and to provide application documentation to families.
Additionally, school districts would be prohibited from publicly identifying a student with meal debt, discarding a meal once it has been served and prohibit schools from trying to collect unpaid meal fees directly from students.
“Children of all ages and backgrounds must be able to eat healthy meals that fuel them for their day,” said Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake. “By prioritizing access to meals in school and finding more equitable ways to manage lunch debt, we help remove obstacles to equal opportunity and break down barriers imposed by social and economic differences among students.”
A recent national school nutrition report found three in four school districts had unpaid school meal debt. Responding to its own meal debt issues, Cherry Hill school district proposed a policy last year to provide alternate ‘cold’ meals for outstanding balances of over $10, and no meals for students with debt over $20.
“This legislation is fundamental in ensuring school meal policies work so that no child is left to go hungry,” said Assemblywoman Mila Jasey. “Success in the classroom creates the baseline for success in adulthood. Research shows that hungry children have lower math scores and are more likely to repeat a grade. It also shows that teens going hungry are more likely to be suspended and socially isolated from their peers.”
Both bills now go to the Senate for further consideration.