Expanding student eligibility for free school meals, the Governor on Friday signed legislation (A-2368) sponsored by Assembly Speaker Craig J. Coughlin, Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, and Assemblywoman Mila Jasey putting New Jersey on course toward universal school breakfast and lunch.
“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 Coughlin (D-Middlesex). “Millions of New Jersey residents experienced unemployment during the pandemic meaning more faced food insecurity as a result, many are still struggling to keep up with their bills. Helping keep money in their pockets, while ensuring more New Jersey students and their families can rely on access to the free school meals they need for success, has never been more important.”
Known as the “Working Class Families’ Anti-Hunger Act,” the law stands to see upward of 26,000 more K-12 New Jersey students able to participate in free school meal programs when it takes effect during the 2023-2024 school year.
“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 law 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 law expands the number of children able to receive free meals by raising the income eligibility threshold from the current 185 percent of Federal Poverty Level to 200 percent. Given the average cost of a school meal, for a New Jersey family of four with two kids in school that could mean up to 22 percent in savings on a minimal family food budget, which ALICE estimates comes to about $1,000 a month.
Importantly, the law will address hunger among students in potentially more affluent communities by making changes to school district meal program participation. It requires schools to offer breakfast when ten percent of the student population is income eligible, down from the current twenty percent requirement.
“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 State will need to provide funding to each school district, as needed to reimburse for the costs of expanding free meals to middle-income students who currently 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.
This measure is part of a larger legislative package, which together combat hunger and expand the accessibility of critical food safety net programs like SNAP for working-class families, seniors, and disabled residents.