The New Jersey School Boards Association testified before a joint legislative committee Tuesday afternoon about food insecurity faced by students and state residents during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In testimony before the Assembly Education and Agriculture committees, the NJSBA said it had worked with other education organizations in the state to increase awareness of federal programs that can help feed students throughout the summer. The committee hearing was for informational purposes; no vote was taken on legislation.

Food insecurity is an issue because the coronavirus caused a sudden spike in unemployment, which has left some families struggling to find ways to pay for food. In more than 40% of households in New Jersey, at least one person is out of work because of the coronavirus pandemic, a recent Monmouth University poll found. This has created an unprecedented demand for assistance. The New York Times reported that the surge of need is unlike anything seen before by the Community Food Bank, the state’s largest provider of emergency food, surpassing the demand that followed Hurricane Sandy and the 19-month Great Recession that ended in 2009.

The NJSBA also represented New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association and New Jersey Association of School Administrators at the hearing. The state education organizations actively participate with the Hunger Free New Jersey Coalition.

“All (of the education organizations) have the same mission in making sure that all students in New Jersey are being fed no matter what specific situations or categories they fall under,” said Sharon Seyler, an NJSBA legislative advocate, in remarks prepared for the committees.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has extended three waivers to provide more flexibility within its child nutrition programs.  The waivers, which were due to expire June 30, will extend through Aug. 31, Seyler explained.

Extending the waivers throughout the summer will ensure that local operators of these programs can accommodate their communities while they are continuing to deliver meals to children during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Throughout the pandemic, schools and local program sponsors have used the flexibility afforded by the USDA to find creative ways to feed kids, such as setting up drive-thru pick-ups and delivering meals on bus routes. These innovative models can continue, without interruption, while state and local social distancing orders remain in place, according to the NJSBA’s testimony.

Since March, USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) has made maximum use of existing program flexibilities and new authorities granted by Congress to make it as easy as possible for children to receive food through the department’s nutrition assistance programs during the national health emergency.

There are three key flexibilities, Seyler told the legislative panel, that will allow current operations to continue without disruption throughout the summer:

  • Non-Congregate Feeding: Allowing meals to be served to children outside of the normally-required group setting to support social distancing.
  • Parent Pickup: Allowing parents and/or guardians to pick up meals and bring them home to their children. This process will help decrease the amount of children congregating in a group session as they will be eating in their homes.
  • Meal Times: Waiving requirements that meals be served at certain standard times to allow for grab-n-go options. This also allows for multiple days-worth of meals to be provided at once. This is a convenience for parents to be able to pick up meals once or twice a week instead of having to stop every day to feed their children.

In addition to granting significant program flexibilities through both nationwide and individual state waivers, FNS is rapidly approving states for Pandemic-EBT, which provides food-purchasing benefits, equal to the value of school meals, to households with children who would otherwise be receiving free or reduced-price meals. At least 26 states have been approved for P-EBT implementation, including New Jersey. The states are approved to allow SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) households to use their EBT card for online food purchase from approved retailers.

The NJSBA COVID -19 Section of the website has a list of local and federal waivers to ensure that children have access to nutrition. The list is available here.