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No New Jersey student should go hungry during the school day. We need free school meals

Thanks to a law passed last month, 60,000 more students will have access to free breakfast and lunch at school next school year. The new law expands eligibility to families whose household income is up to 224% of the federal poverty level. The New Jersey State Legislature and Gov. Phil Murphy should be applauded for expanding access to free school meals given that research shows more students will experience better learning and health outcomes. Yet, with thousands of families still struggling to provide food for their children, we have work to do to ensure no student goes hungry during the school day. This requires further legislative action to adopt universal free school meals for all.

One of the biggest challenges to setting eligibility for free school meals based on federal income standards is that they do not reflect the actual cost of living in specific states. As we know, the cost of living in New Jersey is quite high compared to other states. In fact, it is the fifth most expensive state to live in and ranks second highest for childcare costs. A unique measure developed by the United Way called the ALICE Household Survival Budget shows that a family of four in New Jersey in 2021 needed to have an income of more than $82,000 just to meet basic needs. Based on their analysis, 37% of New Jersey families are living paycheck to paycheck. With this new law, the increased eligibility equates to a household income of approximately $67,200 for a family of four and $44,370 for a family of two — both still well below what is needed to make ends meet according to the ALICE standards. 

Adopting a plan to provide school meals at no cost to all families would address this gap and provide a more equitable school experience for all of our students. Requiring some families to pay for school meals remains the last income-based transaction in public education. No other service provided in schools is determined based on income level whether it be textbooks or school buses. On the flip side, students who receive free school meals can face stigma and bullying from their peers. Providing school meals for all resolves these issues and turns meals in schools from a transactional process into an educational component of the school day.

The benefits of school meals for all programs for our children are profound. Multiple studies have shown that students who have access to free school meals experience better health, improved attendance and  stronger academic performance while reducing disciplinary infractions. That is why eight states have already implemented school meals for all programs, and New Jersey should remain on this trajectory as well. In fact, an important provision of this new law is the establishment of a Working Group on School Food Security that will provide recommendations to the legislature and governor on ways to address food insecurity among New Jersey’s children.  

As we celebrate this milestone, let us also look ahead to supporting efforts that lead to New Jersey joining other states that offer nutritious school meals for all students at no cost as part of every student’s day. Our elected officials have recognized the many benefits these programs have for our students, families and communities and have taken the first steps in moving towards making school nutrition a seamless part of educating our future. A student should never go hungry, feel stigmatized or have any other barrier to learning while at school. Investing in school meals has been proven to lead to better outcomes for students today and we look forward to creating a future where food security is the standard for all of New Jersey’s children.  

Lisa Pitz, is director of Hunger Free New Jersey and Toni Bowman is president of the New Jersey School Nutrition Association.