This guest blog is authored by Nancy Parello, New Jersey Food for Thought Campaign.
It’s going to get a whole lot easier to feed New Jersey kids, thanks to a package of bills passed this spring by our state legislature. The new school breakfast laws will affect an estimated 500 schools educating nearly 308,000 students. Together, the bills have the potential to feed tens of thousands more children through the federal school breakfast and summer meals programs, while bringing millions more in federal reimbursements back to New Jersey.
The centerpiece of the package is a bill that requires high-poverty schools — those with at least 70 percent of children eligible for free or reduced-price school meals — to offer breakfast after the bell through a variety of service models, such as by serving it in the classroom after the school day begins.
We credit this to a couple of things. First, the New Jersey Food for Thought Campaign, led by the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition and Advocates for Children of New Jersey, spent six years building support for breakfast after the bell, enlisting support from education groups and convincing school districts across New Jersey to voluntarily adopt this approach. Our work resulted in a 73 percent increase in the number of students receiving school breakfast since 2010 — the year before the campaign launched.
The Food Research & Action Center has been a strong partner with us on this campaign, lending technical assistance, sharing information and strategies at meetings with school officials, and providing other critical supports, which have helped us achieve this incredible result.
With this support over the past six years, we have built partnerships, highlighted success stories, published data, and essentially changed the conversation around school breakfast. That carefully built infrastructure enabled us to secure passage of this legislative package in a state where educational mandates can be met with fierce opposition.
Another critical bill in the package requires school districts with at least 50 percent low-income children to participate in the federal Summer Food Service Program. This again will have an enormous impact as only about 35 New Jersey school districts act as sponsors in a state with more than 100 eligible school districts.
Two other bills, while not as far-reaching, still send the message that feeding children should be a top priority, and schools must be active partners. One requires every school district with at least one school qualifying for the Community Eligibility Provision, but not implementing it, to report to the state departments of agriculture and education their reasons for not participating. The other is a first step toward addressing “lunch shaming,” by mandating that school districts submit quarterly reports detailing how many students are denied school meals because of unpaid meal fees. This information will help inform future work to expand community eligibility and address unpaid school lunch debt.
Our state leaders even put a little money where their mouths are, by dedicating $250,000 in state funds to the new Nourishing Young Minds Fund to help schools and other organizations afford start-up costs associated with school breakfast and summer meals.
We will be working closely with our state agency, other advocates, and school officials to ensure the successful implementation of these legislative initiatives.
While we still have a long way to go until we can say that all New Jersey children have enough healthy food to eat every day, having these laws in our corner is going to help us get there quicker, and that’s great news for New Jersey’s kids.
Group photo of advocates, school nutrition staff, and education partners after providing testimonials for the New Jersey Senate Education Committee hearing.