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Speaker Coughlin, Speight, Murphy & Haider Bill to Provide Universal Free School Lunch Clears Committee

(TRENTON) – Putting New Jersey on course for universal free school lunch by the 2028-2029 school year, the Assembly Agriculture and Food Security Committee today advanced legislation (A5573) sponsored by Assembly Speaker Craig J. Coughlin, Assemblywoman Shanique Speight, Assemblywoman Carol Murphy, and Assemblywoman Shama Haider to gradually expand student eligibility over a five-year phase-in period.

“With this legislation, we are combatting the hunger crisis impacting our communities by creating a clear path to provide every child in New Jersey with the option of a free and nutritious lunch,” said Speaker Craig J. Coughlin (D-Middlesex). “Universal free school lunch keeps money in the pockets of New Jersey families, and it helps overcome the stigma attached to free or reduced price school meals. By expanding access, we can ensure every student eats during the school day.”

The bill provides for the continued gradual expansion of subsidized school lunch eligibility in schools with lunch programs until all students are eligible, regardless of the students’ income or federal eligibility.

“No child in New Jersey should have to worry about where their next meal will come from, yet this is an unfortunate reality for families that do not meet the eligibility requirements for free school meals,” said Assemblywoman Shanique Speight (D-Essex). “With this legislation, we can make sure all students have access to a nutritious lunch, helping them to learn and succeed in school.”

The legislation builds upon the Working Class Families’ Anti-Hunger Act, which was signed into law last year. The act will take effect during the 2023-2024 school year and stands to see upward of 26,000 more K-12 New Jersey students able to participate in free school meal programs.

“This is about making sure our students have all the support and resources they need to put their best foot forward in the classroom. Access to proper nutrition can improve health and educational outcomes for New Jersey students,” said Assemblywoman Carol Murphy (D-Burlington). “Universal free lunch will help ensure all our students have the opportunity to thrive in school.”

All students who become newly eligible for free school lunch, under the bill’s provisions, would also be eligible to continue receiving free lunches through a summer meals program or through an emergency meals distribution program.

“Any investment into the well-being of New Jersey’s children is an investment worth making,” said Assemblywoman Shama Haider (D-Bergen). “Bridging the gap in food access by expanding free school lunch eligibility will make a huge difference for those who are struggling but may be ineligible for free school meals. This will help fuel student health and learning across our state.”

Under the bill, the State would be required to provide funding to reimburse school districts for the cost of providing free lunch to state-eligible students who currently are federally ineligible under the National School Lunch Program or federal School Breakfast Program.

Assemblyman Roy Freiman (D-Somerset, Mercer, Middlesex, Hunterdon), Chair of the Assembly Agriculture and Food Security Committee, said, “Universal free school lunch is a critical investment into the health and education of our children. At the height of the pandemic, all students were eligible to receive free school meals regardless of income level. This helped lower costs for families while supporting young learners throughout New Jersey, efforts that should not end with the pandemic. By expanding state-eligibility for free school lunch, we can demonstrate our commitment to our working and middle class families.”