Designed to allow more working-class students to be eligible for the free breakfast and lunch option and create a pathway to a universal school meals program, a bill requiring free school breakfasts and lunches to be provided for students from working class, middle-income families advanced in the Assembly Agriculture and Food Security Committee on Monday.
The bill, sponsored by Speaker Craig J. Coughlin (D-Middlesex), Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (Camden, Burlington), and Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex, Morris), is designated the “Working Class Families’ Anti-Hunger Act.”
“The Working Class Families Anti-Hunger Act is critical to meeting the needs of many working families and puts us on a direct path to feeding breakfast and lunch to every child who needs it,” said Speaker Craig Coughlin. “Exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, many New Jersey residents experienced unemployment and faced food insecurity as a result. Many are still struggling to keep up with bills, which means helping keep money in people’s pockets while ensuring their most basic needs are met has never been more important.”
The bill (A-2368) would require all schools in the State to serve school breakfast and lunch, free of charge, to students from working class, middle-income families. “Middle-income family” is defined by the bill to include any family with an annual household income amounting to not less than 186 percent, and not more than 199 percent, of the federal poverty level (FPL).
“Ensuring children have access to proper nutrition is critical not only to their overall health, but also their academic success,” said Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt. “As many working families continue to feel the financial toll of the COVID-19 pandemic, it can be difficult at times to put food on the table. By expanding eligibility for free breakfast and lunch programs, this legislation provides families with the support they need in times of financial uncertainty and helps to ensure that no student is forced to go hungry.”
The legislation would also require the State to provide funding to each school district, as may be necessary to reimburse the costs associated with the district’s provision of free meals to middle-income students who are federally ineligible for such meals under the National School Lunch Program or federal School Breakfast Program.
“Ensuring they have a healthy start in the morning and are nourished throughout the school day sets our children up for academic success,” said Assemblywoman Mila Jasey. “By expanding the requirements for the free school meal program, we can reach more children around the state and assist more families in their time of need.”
These reimbursement provisions are similar to current law, which provides that a student who is federally eligible for reduced price meals be not required to pay any cost for those meals, and that the State will reimburse schools for the difference between the federal allocation for reduced price meals and the total cost of the meals served to such students.
The new eligibility criteria would help reach 26,463 families under the free lunch and breakfast program at approximately $19.2 million annually.
New Jersey anti-hunger advocates have also voiced their support for the legislation.
“Once again, the Assembly is putting forth a bill that seeks to address one of the major issues facing families struggling with the issue of hunger – the income limits on families eligible for free/reduced-price meals. The current limit is an annual income of $27,750 for a family of four,” said Adele LaTourette, director of Hunger Free New Jersey. “We all know that families above that income level struggle every day to provide meals for their children. This bill is the first step in helping those families that are unable to get free/reduced-price school meals while also being unable to afford the full cost of school meals. Hunger Free New Jersey is grateful to the Speaker for his continued commitment to leading the way on this critical issue.”
“We applaud the Assembly’s continued commitment to addressing hunger by increasing the income eligibility for free school meals from 185% to 199% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). As research shows, true poverty in New Jersey is up to three times this official federal measure,” said Renee Koubiadis, Anti-Poverty Program Director of New Jersey Citizen Action. “This new legislation is a good step to ensuring more children do not go hungry. When we give New Jersey children the nutrition they need we improve school participation, academic performance, health, and mental health outcomes, and put them on the right track for a brighter future.”
This measure is part of a legislative package put forward to combat hunger and expand programs for working-class families, seniors, and disabled residents.