Two Bills to End School Lunch Shaming, Address Meal Debt Practices in Schools Clear Assembly

Legislation Supports Continuing Effort to Combat Child Hunger

Following recent controversy surrounding student lunch and other unpaid meal debt, two bills within a legislative package, sponsored by Assembly Democrats Pamela Lampitt, Mila Jasey, Joann Downey, Verlina Reynolds-Jackson and Ralph Caputo to address practices employed in schools concerning unpaid meal debt cleared the full Assembly 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.”

Legislation approved part of the legislative package includes the following bills:

  • 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, Downey), passed 75-0 in the full Assembly.
  • A-5903 Requires school district to establish “School Meal Fund” to assist students with school meal bill in arrears. (Lampitt, Reynolds-Jackson, Caputo), passed 74-1 in the full Assembly.

“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 bills provide a comprehensive approach in calling for efforts to increase participation in meal programs, 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.

“Providing a child with the nutrition they need to learn, play, and grow is critical if we hope to successfully fight hunger throughout all local communities in the State,” said Downey (D-Monmouth). “It remains a huge concern that children in schools may not be getting meals simply because of a lack of awareness about meal programs, and even more so because of shaming practices around unpaid meal bills.”

It is estimated that 13.5% of children are suffering from hunger in New Jersey.

“By requiring school districts to set up a donation fund we can ensure that every child in New Jersey is continually being fed despite potential struggle to pay for school meals,” said Reynolds-Jackson (D-Mercer, Hunterdon). “The prospect that someone with both the means and desire to contribute to a child’s school meal fees should be supported and would be with the enactment of this legislation.”

“Many of us take a healthy meal or snack for granted,” said Caputo (D-Essex). “And while hunger should not be a problem in society during this day and age, it is. With the School Meal Fund, we would increase our capacity to feed children across the State and enhance our school meal program funding efforts by allowing individuals the opportunity to give donations.”