(TRENTON) – A four-bill legislative package sponsored by Assembly Democrats Pamela Lampitt, Shavonda Sumter, Arthur Barclay, Eliana Pintor Marin, Patricia Egan Jones and Benjie Wimberly to get more public school students enrolled in federally funded breakfast and lunch programs was released Thursday by the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
New Jersey ranks 19th in the country for participation in the school breakfast program, and Thursday’s committee action came after Speaker Coughlin touted the bills as part of his anti-hunger effort.
“Fighting hunger is not an option,” said Coughlin (D-Middlesex). “It’s essential, especially when it comes to our young people.”
“Thousands of New Jersey children face hunger each and every day,’’ said Adele LaTourette, director, New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition. “These measures will bring more federal dollars into New Jersey to feed hungry children, removing a major obstacle to learning and improving the health and well-being of thousands of New Jersey children.’’
“While New Jersey has made great strides toward serving breakfast and summer meals to more children, we know that tens of thousands of children are still missing out on this essential nutrition,’’ said Cecilia Zalkind, president & CEO, Advocates for Children of New Jersey. “We commend Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin and state legislators for making childhood hunger a top priority.’’
After an analysis of New Jersey Department of Agriculture data, Advocates for Children of New Jersey found the state’s breakfast program served breakfast to 4 percent, or roughly 10,600, fewer poor students during the previous school year. A report by The Food Research and Action Center calculated that the state missed out on $13 million in additional federal funding for failing to meet the national recommendation that 70 percent of low-income students receive school breakfast.
These bills would require eligible schools to adopt or apply for federally funded meal programs to ensure more students are eating breakfast on a daily basis, and that meals continue during the summer. They also task school districts with collecting data to help assess the amount of student lunch debt amassed by schools, which has led to lunch shaming and kids being denied meals.
“Studies have shown that children who eat breakfast perform better academically than those who don’t,” said Lampitt (D-Burlington/Camden). “These programs are federally funded which means schools districts don’t have to absorb the cost of running them. There is no reason why districts should not be taking advantage of, and implementing these programs for the sake of their students.”
The first bill (A-3506), sponsored by Lampitt, Sumter and Barclay, would require a public school – in which 70 percent or more of the students enrolled in the school on or before the last school day before October 16 of the preceding school year were eligible for free or reduced price meals – to establish a “breakfast after the bell” program in the school. Under current law, a school with 5 percent or more of those eligible students must have a school lunch program, and a school with 20 percent or more of those eligible students must have a school breakfast program.
Students who receive free or reduced price breakfast at school must get to school early and eat breakfast before their first class. The breakfast after the bell program allows students to eat breakfast after the official start of the school day.
“Getting to school early enough to eat breakfast can be difficult for some students. This should not be their only option,” said Lampitt. “This simple change in schedule would allow more students to participate in the breakfast program so they can perform better at school.”
“The ‘Breakfast after the Bell’ program has helped generations of students start their school day,” said Sumter (D-Bergen/Passaic). “Just one small change to scheduling helps to ensure that students do not miss out on the most important meal of the day. The more children we are able to serve through the breakfast program, the better.”
“The idea of cutting-off breakfast after a certain time seems counterproductive,” said Barclay (D-Camden/Gloucester). “Not only does the student not eat, but the food is wasted. If the goal is to improve student readiness and focus, then students should be allowed to have their breakfast later.”
The bill would require each school district to adopt a plan for establishment of a “breakfast after the bell” program for all grades at each qualifying school within one year after the effective date of the bill. Any such plan must be developed by the school district and adopted by the school board. Within six months after the effective date of the bill, each school district must notify the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Education, of the “breakfast after the bell” plan it adopted.
Any school district currently providing a school “breakfast after the bell” program for all grades would not be required to adopt a new plan.
The bill would also allow a public school to establish a paid “breakfast after the bell” program for students not eligible for free or reduced price meals.
The second bill (A-3504), sponsored by Lampitt, Pintor Marin and Barclay, would require every school district – in which 50 percent or more of the students enrolled in the district on or before the last school day before October 16 of the preceding school year were eligible for free or reduced price meals – to become a sponsor of the federal Summer Food Service Program (SFSP).
The federal Summer Food Service Program ensures that low-income children continue to receive nutritious meals when school is not in session. The program reimburses sponsors for administrative and operational costs to provide meals for children 18 years of age and younger during periods when they are out of school for 15 or more consecutive school days. It is funded by the United States Department of Agriculture and administered by the state Department of Agriculture.
Under the bill, school districts that meet the criteria for sponsorship would have to submit a plan to the Department of Agriculture no later than one year after the bill becomes law. The school district would have to become a sponsor, based upon its plan, no later than two years after the bill’s enactment. A waiver from the sponsorship requirement would be allowed under certain conditions.
“Many parents depend on the breakfast and lunch programs to help feed their children. Maintaining the same level of meals during the summer can be a struggle for these families,” said Lampitt. “This program would help fill the summer meal gap at no additional cost to school districts.”
“Making sure that kids eat a nutritious breakfast and lunch every day can be a challenge for working parents,” said Pintor Marin (D-Essex). “This would help provide students balanced meals during the summer without placing a financial burden on already cash-strapped schools.”
“For families that struggle financially, pricier, healthier food options may not be feasible,” said Barclay. “This helps ensure that students who benefit from school breakfast and lunch during the school year can get some healthy foods in their daily diets while they are on summer break.”
The third bill (A-3503), sponsored by Lampitt, Jones and Wimberly, would require every school district in which there is at least one school that qualifies for the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), but is not implementing it, to report the reasons for nonparticipation in writing to the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Education.
The CEP is a federally funded reimbursement alternative for eligible, high-poverty local educational agencies and schools participating in the federal school breakfast and lunch programs. The CEP allows the nation’s highest poverty schools and school districts to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students without collecting individual household applications.
The last bill (A-3502), also sponsored by Lampitt, Wimberly and Jones, would require school districts to report the number of students who are denied school breakfast or school lunch pursuant to current law to the Department of Agriculture on a biannual basis, at the very least.
Currently, if a public school student is behind on his or her school breakfast or lunch bill, the district must notify the student’s parent or guardian and provide a period of 10 school days to pay the amount due. If the bill is not paid by the end of the 10 school days, the district would then have to provide a second notice that school breakfast or school lunch, as applicable, will not be served to the student beginning one week from the date of this second notice unless payment is made in full.
“This information will help determine the need in our schools and what districts are doing to meet this need,” said Lampitt. “If there are federal programs that provide breakfast and lunch to our most vulnerable student populations, but schools are not utilizing them, we need to know why.”
“Knowing how many students have lunch debt can help us address this problem without resorting to problematic solutions that stigmatize children. If there are programs that schools are not participating in that could help, we need to know why,” said Jones (D-Camden/Gloucester).
“The CEP program allows schools with primarily low-income students to easily provide breakfast and lunches to all of their students, but some schools are not taking advantage of this. They should have to explain why,” said Wimberly (D-Passaic/Bergen). “The more we know about what schools are actively doing to ensure students are well nourished, the better we can serve them.”