On Sept. 9, 2022, Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law two measures designed to combat hunger and food insecurity by expanding access to school meals. Both bills were part of a 10-bill package spearheaded by Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin to expand meal programs for working-class families, seniors and disabled residents.
Increasing Eligibility for Free Meals
Designated the “Working Class Families’ Anti-Hunger Act,” A-2368/S-1677 (P.L. 2022, c104) includes several provisions designed to increase access to and participation in school lunch and breakfast programs. Most notably, the law expands income-based eligibility for free breakfast and lunch from the current 185% of the federal poverty level up to 200% of the federal poverty level. It also reduces the threshold that requires schools to offer breakfast from 20% low-income enrollment to 10% low-income enrollment, effectively requiring schools that enroll 10%-20% low-income students to establish school breakfast programs, unless the school applies for and is granted a waiver from the New Jersey Department of Agriculture demonstrating that offering breakfast would cause financial hardship.
Regarding expansion of free meal eligibility, the law establishes a “middle-income family” designation – defined as a family with an annual household income between 186% and 199% of the federal poverty level – and requires schools participating in a school meal program to offer free meals to students from middle-income families who are not federally eligible for free or reduced-price meals. The state will reimburse school districts for the provision of these additional free meals. It is estimated that roughly 26,000 students will become newly eligible for free meals under this proposal at a cost of approximately $19 million statewide.
Notably, the law does not modify the definition of “at-risk” (i.e. low-income) that is used in the School Funding Reform Act to determine state aid. The definition of “at-risk” remains students from households with a household income at or below 185% of the federal poverty level.
Regarding expansion of school breakfast programs, the law requires each public school in the state in which 10% or more of students are federally eligible for free or reduced-price meals (i.e., eligible under federal rules, not N.J.-specific rules) to establish a breakfast program. Prior to this bill’s signing, the threshold for requiring a school to establish a breakfast program was 20% federally eligible students.
These newly required school breakfast programs must be in place by Sept. 1, 2024, for schools having one or more of the grades PK-6 (a district with such a school must submit a plan to the NJDA for establishment of these new breakfast programs by Nov. 1, 2023), and by Sept. 1, 2025, for all other schools (these districts must submit their breakfast plans to the NJDA by Nov. 1, 2024). The NJDA will provide model breakfast plans for impacted districts.
Importantly, the law provides an exemption from its requirement to establish new school breakfast programs if a school or district can demonstrate that compliance will cause financial hardship. To qualify for this exemption, a school, or a district acting on behalf of a school, must submit, and be granted, a waiver from the NJDA. The conditions under which the NJDA may grant a waiver include, but are not limited to, lack of facilities/equipment or low program participation rates. The NJDA is authorized to request, at most once every two years, updated financial and demographic information from a school or district that has been granted a waiver. If the NJDA determines, based on review of the information received, that the financial hardship has been eliminated, the NJDA must rescind the school’s waiver. A school or district that has its waiver rescinded may submit a new waiver application.
Additionally, the law includes various requirements designed to strengthen school meal programs:
- All school districts that offer breakfast must submit a new school breakfast program plan to the NJDA.
- All school districts implementing school meal programs must publicize to parents and students the various ways in which a student may qualify to receive free or reduced-price meals under the program.
- School districts must “make every effort” to facilitate the prompt identification of categorically eligible students; encourage students and families to submit a school meals application whenever it is required to establish eligibility; and expedite subsidized school meals application and income-eligibility determinations.
- Clarifies that the thresholds requiring participation in breakfast after the bell and summer food service programs are percentages of students federally eligible for free or reduced-price meals. The law also clarifies that a district that is not required to sponsor a summer food service program may do so at their discretion.
- Each school district with a school offering breakfast after the bell must submit a revised breakfast after-the-bell plan to the NJDA by March 1, 2023.
- The NJDA will develop guidelines concerning a school’s receipt of payment from unsubsidized students for breakfasts served under a breakfast after-the-bell program.
- Clarifies that school breakfasts served as part of a school breakfast program or a breakfast after-the-bell program must meet minimum nutritional standards established by the NJDOE.
- School districts participating in school lunch or breakfast programs must “take steps to maximize the use of federal resources and to minimize that debt that is incurred by families for school meals.” The NJDA will establish protocol to guide these steps. NJDA’s protocol will identify best practices for maximizing federal resources and increasing certification of students for free or reduced-price meals. The NJDA and NJDOE will also provide direct assistance to school districts to support free and reduced-price meal certification.
- Establishes additional restrictions against “lunch shaming” (i.e. adverse actions against students with meal debt) by prohibiting a school or district from:
- Barring students from participating in extracurricular activities or school events solely because of unresolved meal debt.
- Withholding grades, official transcripts, report cards, or graduation solely because of unresolved meal debt.
- Requiring parents to pay fees or costs more than the actual amounts owed for meals.
- Denying a student access to a school meal during any period in which the school is making a determination as to whether the student is eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
- At the beginning of each school year, a school district must provide parents with the following information, which must be shared in a language that the parent or guardian understands and specify the limited purposes for which collected data may be used.
- Information on meal programs, including the availability of free or reduced-price meals for eligible students, the application process and protections against lunch shaming.
- A school meals application form, instructions for completing it, and, as necessary, assistance in completing it.
- Specifies that a parent’s school meals application must be confidential and used or shared only as may be necessary in conducting certain specified activities to facilitate school meal programs and state aid determinations.
- Clarifies that school meals made available through an emergency meals distribution program (i.e., meals served at distribution sites during a public health related closure pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:33-27.2) must be provided in accordance with the new income-eligibility rules established by this law.
Promoting School Meal Programs
A-2365/S-1928 (P.L. 2022, c103) requires school food authorities to take certain steps to promote participation in their meal programs provided at public schools. Specifically, the law requires SFAs to:
- Develop and implement a public education campaign to educate parents and guardians about the various school meals programs that are available, including the availability of free and reduced-price meals. The campaign must, in accordance with standards adopted by the NJDA:
- Highlight and promote the importance of various meal programs, including breakfast, lunch, summer meals, breakfast after-the-bell and emergency meals distribution programs.
- Emphasize the importance of providing nutritious meals.
- Promote free and reduced-price meal programs and inform parents about the various ways a student may be determined eligible.
- Describe the application and determination process to certify students for free or reduced-price meals.
- Describe the rights applicable to students and families in association with a student’s subsidized or unsubsidized receipt of school meals.
- Inform parents and guardians of any proposed or implemented expansion of existing school meal programs, including those regarding students eligible for free or reduced- price meals.
- Develop and provide to schools served by the school food authority for distribution to parents and guardians promotional materials for the state’s school meals programs that include, but need not be limited to, pamphlets, webinars and sample letters that schools may send to parents and guardians. The school food authority must utilize existing resources made available by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the NJDA in developing these materials.
The above information must be provided by the school food authority in the two languages most spoken in the homes of students in the school it serves. The NJDOE will provide this language data to school food authorities and verify it at least every five years.
To view the full text of any of the bills summarized above, please visit the New Jersey Legislature’s website.