While closing schools may be a helpful tool in stunting the spread of the coronavirus, it has at least one serious consequence: many children who rely upon free or reduced price school lunches and breakfast programs may be left hungry.
Efforts are being made at both the state and federal level to ensure these at-risk children receive food.
Rep. Bill Pascrell, Jr. and Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker urged the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to give flexibility to New Jersey schools to ensure they would be able to feed students in the state as the coronavirus outbreak accelerated in a letter sent to the Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.
USDA previously waived some program requirements to allow states the flexibilities needed to administer school meal programs during closures. The legislators want USDA to give full consideration to a proposal from New Jersey to allow all eligible School Food Authorities to serve students meals through the Summer Food Service Program. Forty-one of New Jersey’s 675 school districts would be eligible to participate.
“During a public health emergency, the last thing students need to worry about is where they are going to get their next meal. We look forward to working with you to meet New Jersey’s needs by providing the flexibility permitted by statute throughout the COVID-19 epidemic,” the three legislators wrote.
New Jersey Efforts
On the state level, New Jersey’s Assembly advanced a bipartisan measure that would provide school meals to be distributed to students via local centers when schools are closed by the New Jersey Department of Health or local health officer.
The bill was part of the Assembly’s package of legislation developed in response to the outbreak of the coronavirus, and was approved by the Assembly Homeland Security and State Preparedness Committee March 16 before going to the Assembly floor vote. It now heads to the Senate for consideration.
Bipartisan sponsors, Assembly members Pamela Lampitt (D-Camden, Burlington), Aura Dunn (R-Morris, Somerset) and Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Union), issued a joint statement on the bill, outlining the uncertainty students were facing in the midst of the crisis.
“In this time of uncertainty, we must work together to maintain a sense of normalcy. Preventing disruptions to daily nourishment is simply the beginning of what we need to do to ensure the whole child is safe, thriving and resilient throughout this public health emergency,” the sponsors wrote.