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June 01, 2022

New Jersey bill would provide free school meals to students from working class families

The legislation is part of a broader package seeking to combat food insecurity and hunger throughout the state

Government Food Accessibility
Food Insecurity NJ Bill Package Annie Spratt/Unsplash

The New Jersey Assembly passed a large legislative package aimed at combating food insecurity. The central bill, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin's 'Working Families' Anti-Hunger Act' would provide free school meals to students from working class families.

New Jersey could provide students from low-income and middle class families with free breakfast and lunch, as a bill to inch the state toward universal free school meals passed out of the state Assembly on Thursday. 

The bill, called the "Working Families' Anti-Hunger Act," would expand access to free school meals to students of working families. It's just one proposal within a broader legislative package proposed by Democratic state lawmakers in an effort to combat food insecurity throughout New Jersey. 

A similar bill, which also passed out of Assembly on Thursday, urges Congress to permanently waive income thresholds for free school meals, putting New Jersey on track to provide universal school meals to all students. 

Other proposals seek to expand access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and ensure that eligible residents are taking advantage of the social safety net.

"Exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, many New Jersey residents experienced unemployment and faced food insecurity as a result," said Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, who sponsored the school meals bill. "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." 

A study by the Food Research & Action Center found that 285,000 New Jersey households did not have reliable access to affordable, nutritious food in 2020. Many hunger-related issues in the state are felt disproportionately among Black and Latino households, with both groups experiencing higher rates of "food insufficiency" compared to white households. 

Among the chief recommendations made by FRAC in its study is the expansion of access to social safety nets and food assistance programs in order to ensure that people from vulnerable or otherwise underserved communities are able to access affordable and nutritious foods. 

However, New Jersey lags behind other states in program enrollment, particularly for SNAP. Only about 70% of eligible New Jersey residents are enrolled in the SNAP program and many people are missing out on crucial funds for fresh food that could help households retain food security. 

A handful of the bills included in the broad legislative package address concerns about SNAP eligibility and improving access for residents, including one that would implement a SNAP call center to help streamline the assistance application process. 

Others include a bill to create an outreach plan for potential SNAP eligibility and another would eliminate specific work training requirements to expand access for working adults. 

The Working Families' Anti-Hunger Act, if passed by the state Senate and signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy, would serve more than 26,000 students from working class and middle class families throughout New Jersey. 

Additional conditions of the bill expand free school meals even further: if 10% of a school's student population is income-eligible for free school meals, the school would have to provide free breakfast to all students. If 5% of the student population is income eligible, the school would have to provide free lunch. 

"Ensuring children have access to proper nutrition is critical not only to their overall health, but also their academic success," said Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt. "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." 

An additional bill would establish a public education campaign to help eligible participants understand the different school meal options available in New Jersey. 

Other bills included in the package would supplement $800,000 to the Department of Health to implement an electronic benefits transfer system for the Senior Farmers' Market Nutrition Program. The program provides fresh produce to senior citizens in order to promote nutritional health among the oldest residents of the state. 

Another would require the Department of Human Services to issue an additional $15 SNAP benefit for senior citizens and disabled enrollees. 

All of the bills passed out of the state Assembly have identical Senate bills, but none of them have been called up for a vote as of June 1.