Assembly Democratic Bill to Accommodate Cultural Preferences in School Menus Advances in Senate

Legislation Assembly Democrats Pamela Lampitt, Carmelo G. Garcia, Raj Mukherji, Gabriela Mosquera, Joseph Lagana and Benjie Wimberly sponsored to require public school districts to consider making their breakfast and lunch menus more culturally sensitive was advanced by the Senate Education Committee on Thursday.

The bill (A-3360) would require superintendents in public school districts containing a middle or high school to establish a district-wide food services advisory committee to recommend breakfast and lunch menu options that reflect the student body’s cultural, traditional and overall dietary preferences if the student population suggests such a need exists.

“Consistency in teaching New Jersey’s children about embracing cultural diversity requires us to ensure that they know everyone is welcome in the classroom as well as in the cafeteria,” said Lampitt (D-Camden/Burlington). “School menus that respect students’ dietary preferences will send a message of inclusion that is central to our state’s value system.”

“One of the greatest aspects of living in New Jersey is our multiculturalism,” said Garcia (D-Hudson). “Honoring that diversity involves making sure no student feels like his or her cultural background is a limiting or ostracizing factor in any regard, and lunchroom options are no exception.”

“This legislation initiates the process that many other states have completed in recognition of changing tastes and food preferences among today’s more informed and health-conscious students and families,” said Mukherji (D-Hudson). “This will ensure that New Jersey schools respect the preferences of multicultural, vegetarian and vegan students.”

“School breakfasts and lunches cannot provide the nourishment that New Jersey’s students need if they aren’t eaten,” said Mosquera (D-Camden/Gloucester). “Making vegetarian, vegan, kosher, halal and other cultural dietary options available can increase the likelihood that students will eat the food on the menu and help ensure that New Jersey’s School Nutrition Programs reach their intended goal.”

“There’s no doubt that a healthy diet plays an integral role in a student’s ability to understand and retain information,” said Lagana (D-Bergen/Passaic). “In addition to respecting the great diversity of New Jersey’s population, this legislation is about providing students with meals that take both their wellness and their personal preferences into account.”

“On its face, this legislation is about making sure that all students receive the nutrition they need, but the larger notion is that this is a state where we welcome people of all backgrounds,” said Wimberly (D-Bergen/Passaic). “Just as we strive to ensure that our children succeed academically, this bill fosters the kind of cultural awareness and acceptance that will be a foundation for unity in our state for generations to come.”

Each district’s food services advisory committee would consist of: the superintendent, a principal or principal’s designee, a food services employee or contractor, at least four students enrolled in the district from the middle and high schools and at least one parent of said students, who together would make recommendations to the school principal and the food service provider. A school nurse who expresses interest may also serve on the committee. The superintendent would appoint each member to the committee, which would meet a minimum of three times per academic year, with at least one of those meetings taking place in each semester or half of the school year.

To determine whether a particular school district needs a food service advisory committee, each student enrolled in the district’s middle and high schools would complete a written form indicating whether he or she has an unmet dietary preference and describing any food concerns he or she wishes to see addressed. The form would also be available via the school district’s web site.

In the event that no student expresses an unmet food preference or a small segment of the student body expresses a preference that can be met to their satisfaction without a food service advisory committee, the district superintendent may choose to suspend the bill’s requirements for one academic year. Still, if any student expresses an interest in vegetarian or vegan options, the district must make all reasonable efforts to expand breakfast and lunch options to offer hot and cold vegetarian and vegan choices.

The bill was approved by the full Assembly last month and now awaits final legislative consideration by the full Senate.