Legislation Supports Continuing Effort to Combat Child Hunger
Following recent controversy surrounding student lunch and other unpaid meal debt, a legislative package, sponsored by Assembly Democrats Pamela Lampitt, Annette Quijano, Majority Leader Louis Greenwald, Mila Jasey and Britnee Timberlake, to address practices employed in schools concerning this debt was approved by the Assembly Education Committee on Monday.
Lampitt strongly believes the school policies on unpaid meal plan balances encouraging punitive action against students are fundamentally wrong, and more productive strategies will require schools to be more involved in notifying families of debt and connecting them with the appropriate resources.
“There has been a lot of scrutiny in recent months about the handling of student meal debt and I believe we’ve lost sight of the most integral part of this issue, student well-being,” said Lampitt (D-Camden, Burlington). “Proper nutrition is essential to a child’s success in the classroom; it is also crucial to their social and emotional development. Punishing or shaming them for debt before addressing the underlying cause with families does not enhance positive learning outcomes. It only reinforces harmful stigma.”
In New Jersey, it is estimated that 13.5% of children are suffering from hunger.
“What we’re creating with this legislation is a coordinated effort that not only stops shaming, but increases participation in meal programs,” said Quijano (D-Union). “There are parents and students alike that are not getting the financial assistance they need through school meal programs, simply because they don’t know about them or don’t want to identify themselves as struggling. Promoting programs that provide nutritious food during school, after school and even throughout summer for their health benefits can help change people’s perceptions.”
“The purpose of a school lunch policy is to ensure that our children have access to the nutrition they need to perform well in the classroom and lead productive, healthy lives,” said Greenwald (D-Camden, Burlington). “Preventing participation in extracurricular sports or activities, attendance at social events with classmates, or withholding grades can exacerbate the academic and social stressors our students face each day, causing long term harm. Together this legislation addresses all facets of the problem, providing students with the nutrition they need while removing penalties for problems that are beyond their control.”
The bills provide a comprehensive approach in calling for the promotion of meal programs to increase participation, improving notification procedures to address unpaid bills, requiring schools to assess meal program eligibility before applying restrictions on students and creating avenues for receipt of donations to cover outstanding meal debt.
“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 is also shows that teens going hungry are more likely to be suspended and socially isolated from their peers,” said Jasey (D-Essex, Morris). “This legislation is fundamental in ensuring school meal policies work so that no child is left to go hungry.”
The four-part legislative package includes the following bills:
- A-4062 Requires Department of Agriculture to promote school meal programs. (Lampitt, Quijano)
- A-5901 Clarifies that school district is not required to restrict access to school meals if school meal bill is in arrears. (Lampitt, Greenwald, Timberlake)
- A-5902 Requires school districts take certain actions to increase participation in free or reduced priced meal programs; prohibits shaming students with school meal bills in arrears; prohibits certain district actions in collecting unpaid school meal fees. (Lampitt, Jasey)
- A-5903 Requires school district to establish “School Meal Fund” to assist students with school meal bill in arrears. (Lampitt)
“Children of all ages and backgrounds must be able to eat healthy meals that fuel them for their day,” said Timberlake (D-Essex, Passaic). “The child that comes to school nourished and well fed is proven to be a better, more attentive learner. 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.”
The four measures now go to the Assembly Speaker for further review.