TRENTON — New Jersey schools would be prohibited from denying students breakfast or lunch for at least three weeks after their meal accounts run dry under a measure moving through the state Legislature.
The bill, sponsored by Assemblymen Jason O’Donnell, D-31st of Bayonne, and Joseph Cryan, D-20th of Union, is intended to address an issue that gained publicity last fall after the Willingboro School District announced it no longer would serve lunches to students who don’t have money to pay for them.
School officials said the expense of serving the free meals was becoming more than the district could afford, but some residents condemned the decision, claiming students shouldn’t be punished for their parents’ irresponsibility.
After hearing complaints, the district agreed to send a notice to parents once their child’s lunch account drops below $10. Officials also promised every effort would be made to avoid turning away a student seeking lunch.
O’Donnell and Cryan’s bill would mandate that all districts send a notice to parents or guardians if their accounts enter the red and give parents 10 school days to make payment. If full payment isn’t made after the 10-day grace period, a second notice would be required notifying parents that their child would not be served beginning in one week.
The measure was released Monday by the Assembly Women and Children Committee, along with several other bills intended to boost participation in school breakfast programs.
Supporters of the notification measure said it was intended to give parents every opportunity to make payment on lunch or breakfast accounts before those meals are withheld, while also recognizing the financial burden that continually serving free meals can place on school districts.
“In order to put the student’s best interest first, we need to take a compassionate yet practical approach when it comes to this sensitive issue,” O’Donnell said in a statement.
Although child advocates said they generally supported the measure, they urged lawmakers to amend it so that school districts are prohibited from ever denying students meals.
“The measure essentially delays but doesn’t prohibit schools from denying lunches,” said Nancy Parello, communications director with the nonprofit group Advocates for Children of New Jersey.
Parello said the group favors devising another method to deal with problem parents whose accounts run dry, including outreach to determine if the family qualifies for federal assistance and free or reduced lunches.
“Clearly, it’s an issue for some school districts because they can’t afford to carry these types of arrears. It becomes a financial issue, and we understand they need some type of recourse. But it shouldn’t be directed at the child in any way,” Parello said.
Another recourse used in other states is to withhold students’ report cards until their accounts are paid up.
“Regardless of the delay, not feeding a child should not be an option,” said Adele LaTourette, director of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition.
Among the measures approved by the committee to boost participation in school breakfast programs, one would require the New Jersey Department of Agriculture and state Department of Education to assist schools with large populations of students from low-income families in forming a “breakfast after the bell” program in their first-period classrooms.
The after-the-bell programs are designed to increase student participation in school breakfast programs by serving quick, nutritious meals during the first period rather than before school starts.
Twenty-six public school districts in Burlington County have breakfast programs, according to the state Department of Agriculture. The department was not aware of how many of those programs serve the meal during first period.
“According to experts, the percentage of students that participate in school breakfast increases when breakfast is served in the classroom at the start of school,” said Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, who is one of the bill’s sponsors. “If this simple change means a healthier head start for students, then we should do all we can to encourage it.”
Another bill would require the Department of Agriculture to establish on its website a clearinghouse of schools and food banks interested in obtaining locally-grown produce and dairy products for school lunch or breakfast programs.
A fourth bill would mandate that public schools create a school breakfast program if 5 percent or more of the student body is eligible for free or reduced-price meals under federal guidelines.
New Jersey Agriculture Secretary Doug Fisher testified at the committee hearing that student participation in school breakfast programs has grown 16 percent in each of the last two years.
“We still have a ways to go, but at the same time we’re making extraordinary progress,” Fisher said.