Following controversy surrounding unpaid breakfast and lunch meals, two measures to address practices employed by New Jersey schools concerning this debt were advanced by the Assembly Education Committee on Thursday.
The first bill (A-1630 /A-1631) provides when a school meal bill is in arrears, a student’s parent or guardian would be notified and given a period of 10 school days to pay. Prior to notification, school districts would need to exhaust all options and methods to directly certify students for free or reduce priced meal programs and to provide application documentation to families.
The measure is sponsored by Assembly Democrats Pamela Lampitt, Majority Leader Louis Greenwald, Mila Jasey, Britnee Timberlake and Joann Downey.
“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.”
“The purpose of a school lunch policy is to ensure that our children have access to the nutrition they need to perform well in the classroom and lead productive, healthy lives,” said Greenwald (D-Camden, Burlington). “Preventing participation in extracurricular sports or activities, attendance at social events with classmates, or withholding grades can exacerbate the academic and social stressors our students face each day, causing long term harm. Together this legislation addresses all facets of the problem, providing students with the nutrition they need while removing penalties for problems that are beyond their control.”
The bill further clarifies that no part of law requires a school district to impose restrictions on school meals or activities for a student whose bill is in arrears. Rather, that they provide adequate notice to parents or guardians ahead of taking any action. It also prohibits schools from trying to collect unpaid meal fees directly from students.
“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.”
A recent national school nutrition report found that three in four school districts had unpaid school meal debt.
Responding to its own meal debt issues, Cherry Hill school district in Camden County proposed a policy last year to provide alternate ‘cold’ meals for outstanding balances of over $10, and no meals for students with debt over $20. This bill would not permit a policy of such kind.
“Children of all ages and backgrounds must be able to eat healthy meals that fuel them for their day,” said Timberlake (D-Essex, Passaic). “The child that comes to school nourished and well fed is proven to be a better, more attentive learner. By prioritizing access to meals in school and finding more equitable ways to manage lunch debt, we help remove obstacles to equal opportunity and break down barriers imposed by social and economic differences among students.”
“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.”
The second bill (A-1632) is also sponsored by Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, along with Assembly Democrats Verlina Reynolds-Jackson and Ralph Caputo, and would require schools to set up a fund allowing them to accept and receive donations to pay down school meal debt.
“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). “Someone with both the means and the desire to contribute to a child’s school meal fees should be supported and would be with the enactment of this legislation.”
Schools across the nation are accepting donations to help eliminate school meal debt. In Washington, an eight-year-old raised $4,000 selling $5 handmade key chains to erase debt in his school and six others. A yogurt company paid off $50,000 of Rhode Island’s lunch debt and recently a 49’ers football player donated over $7,000 to schools in Santa Clara, California.
“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.”
The measures now head go to the Speaker for further consideration.