The Senate Education Committee held a 90-minute hearing Monday Jan. 27 on school nutrition, during which experts and educators spoke about the best practices in providing the healthiest foods to children.

Speakers included Dr. Daniel Hoffman from the Rutgers Department of Nutritional Services; Adele Latourette, program director, advocacy and outreach Hunger Free N.J.; Shelly Skinner, executive director, Better Education for Kids (B4K).  Other speakers included representatives from the American Heart Association, Eco Space N.J., the N.J. Farm Bureau, and the Alliance for Healthy Schools.

Roughly 300,000 (about 20%) of New Jersey’s public school children are undernourished.  Some students are also beginning to show signs of poor diets with increased reports of elevated blood pressure and other maladies related, in part, to poor dietary options.

Speakers agreed that programs like Breakfast After the Bell are making a difference but more needs to be done. There was a consensus that educating students and their parents about the benefits of good nutritional choices was extremely important.

The likely next step will be the introduction of several bills that the committee’s chair, state Senator Teresa Ruiz, hopes to move in the current legislative session.

Among them is a bill revived from the last legislative session to set standards for school nutrition in New Jersey at levels established by the federal government in 2012, no matter what changes are attempted at the federal level in the future. One legislative proposal could require districts to have nutritionists develop their breakfast and lunch programs.

Another bill would create a pilot program of districts following “whole food” standards, serving students foods that are minimally processed and free of extra sugars and other additives. The bill would set aside $1 million to assist three pilot districts over the course of three years.

Changes proposed to nutritional guidelines by the Trump administration are cause for concern. A recent administration proposal that gives states greater flexibility in setting their school food standards could result in lower nutrition standards.

Stakeholder reaction was positive, although costs associated with new mandates are worrisome.

The New Jersey School Boards Association testified that its members had adopted policies going back to 1985 that stress the importance of educating students and parents and the entire community about the benefits of good nutrition.

The NJSBA commented that there is a tendency on the part of the state to impose new requirements. The Association’s testimony concluded with a request that any new legislation provide a menu of options that districts could choose to adopt.