Designed to expand student eligibility for free school meals, the General Assembly voted 75-3-1 on Thursday passing legislation putting New Jersey on course toward universal school breakfast and lunch. Sponsored by Assembly Speaker Craig J. Coughlin, Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, and Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, another 26,463 K-12 students stand to benefit from the “Working Class Families’ Anti-Hunger Act” (A-2368).
“This bill 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 Coughlin (D-Middlesex). “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.”
Families with an annual household income of up to 200 percent the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), raised above the current eligibility of 185 percent of FPL, would benefit from free of charge breakfast and lunch at school under the bill. For a New Jersey family of four with two kids in school that could mean $240 or 22 percent in savings on monthly family food bills, according to ALICE estimates of a minimal family food budget being around $1,000 a month.
“Ensuring children have access to proper nutrition is critical not only to their overall health, but also their academic success,” said Lampitt (D-Camden, Burlington). “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.”
Importantly, the bill also seeks to address hunger among students in potentially more affluent communities. It does that by expanding the number of school districts in New Jersey serving school lunch and breakfast with changes to school meal program participation thresholds, which would require schools to offer breakfast if ten percent of the student population is income eligible and to offer lunch if five percent of students are eligible.
“Ensuring they have a healthy start in the morning and are nourished throughout the school day sets our children up for academic success,” said Jasey (D-Essex, Morris). “By expanding the requirements for these free school meal programs, we can reach more children around the state and assist more families in their time of need.”
The legislation would require the State to provide funding to each school district, as needed to reimburse the costs of providing free meals to middle-income students who are federally ineligible under the National School Lunch Program or federal School Breakfast Program. This would amount to an annual cost of $19.4 million to the State.
This measure is part of a larger legislative package, also passed Thursday, which combats hunger and expands the accessibility of critical food safety net programs for working-class families, seniors, and disabled residents.